Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Crafting Trail with the CMC

The view from Hornbuckle Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
So I have been getting settled in well here in Asheville, enjoying some of the very things that make this city what it is: morning trail runs, afternoon trail runs, and mid-day hikes on the MST (this is easy considering one can access it rather easily from just about anywhere in the city), workshops on harvesting wild nuts and plant walks with some of my favorite herbal instructors, and breath-taking views at the most unexpected moments such as when driving down the highway when heading into work. I've also reveled in the non-nature related perks as well:  delicious vegetarian fare, quality coffee, local stouts and porters, yoga classes,  eclectic bookstores abounding with nature musings and eastern philosophy, and weekly costume parties (planned and impromptu) as well as lots and lots of laughter with friends. Ah...Asheville, thank you for welcoming me back into your mountains.

However, most recently, I had the opportunity to step into the Mountains with the Carolina Mountain Club. Although I have walked a lot of trail, I must admit, I have built next to none. This past Saturday I got to meet some of the folks that not only build and maintain approximately 100 miles of the MST , but also many miles of the AT and various smaller trails throughout the surrounding region. Walking the trail may require physical strength, commitment, and presence of mind, but building one requires all this and a hazel hoe!

Janet - a volunteer with the Carolina Mountain Club holding just a small handful of the foot-deep duff we encountered. She showed this trail building novice the ropes!
Les Love and Piet lead the regional crew and guide the Saturday outings with volunteers, making sure all feel welcome and are fitted with the proper tools and the instruction on how to use them. On this day, the last Saturday work day on the MST of the year until March, they led 19 of us up a steep, bushwhacked path, at times resembling that of a deer trail, to the work-in-progress path that will be the MST.

Standing on my 20 feet of trail that Janet and I hacked away at for 4 hours
Now I had it easy with just my hazel hoe and clippers, some of these folks were carrying far more gear such as buckets, rakes, and or even a chainsaw or two. We all chatted on the way up and I had the pleasure of talking for a good while with Bob. Bob is on the weekly Friday work crew and although twice my age kept a strong pace and by the looks of his of gear and dirt-coated backpack implied he was going to give that trail some real workin'. Bob is just one example of the many folks that dedicate significant chunks of their time to steadily building and maintaining the trail that brings so many of us so much joy.

Becky and Linda - these ladies made some awesome progress just above where Janet and I were working. Becky leads a wilderness trail crew that will be heading out again this Saturday.
Our job on this day was to continue cutting into the mountainside with sharp hazel hoes and scraping away the upper layer of duff. Duff is decaying vegetation, basically roots, leaves, and fallen trees that are slowly turning to dirt. Once this layer is removed, along with the rocks therein (small rocks are simply thrown off-trail, however large rocks are reserved to support the newly exposed soil), rich black soil is revealed. This will be the basis for a long-lasting trail, along with proper ditches made for draining and necessary stepping stones. We did a good deal of hard manual labor on this day but we shared a good deal of stories with one another and laughter as well.

Just one view from Waterrock Knob - elevation 5820 feet
 When finished, this trail will lead from the top of Waterrock Knob that sits at 5820 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway down to Soco Gap. When I came through here on my last thru-hike I followed trail a ways pass Balsam Gap and then walked the parkway to its peak. It had been blustery and cold and spitting rain with fog so thick I could barely see the road before me...a long cry from the sunny, blue-skied day that I had encountered on this work day, so lovely that I actually felt nostalgic for that difficult day. Once at Waterrock Knob I had followed the Black Rock Trail down to my campsite within Pinnacle Park. This put me on course for the River Valley Route where I then picked up road walking until I hit the Smokies. However, this new trail has the potential to lead the hiker along the into the Smokies without having to road-walk.

I strongly encourage any of my fellow hikers to get out and volunteer with your local trail crews. If it weren't for these folks, the trail would quite literally not exist. If you can't get out to lend a literal hand, then thank these people as you pass them on trail. Trail building is slow and steady and their commitment to the larger vision and hard work is remarkable. If you'd like to get in contact with this Asheville crew, please drop me a line and I will pass along contact information to you. If you'd like to get in contact with this crew or any other crew along the MST or learn how you can help in other ways, visit the FMST webpage at

Larry, Rich, and Rob - hardworking trail guys!!
Thank you for the opportunity to give back, Les, Piet, and crew! All of you were so friendly and welcoming and it felt so good to get my hands in the dirt. I will certainly be joining you again!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Siler Bald

Plaque atop Siler Bald: elevation 5,126 feet
Just yesterday I had the opportunity to join some friends for a hike along the Appalachian Trail from Winding Stair Gap to Siler Bald. This is one of the elements of Asheville that I adore the most...not only do I have the Mountains to Sea Trail less than a quarter mile from my front door, but the Appalachian Trail as close as a 20 minute drive.

We drove a little bit further for this hike however, about an hour and a half to Route 64 just outside of Franklin, NC. As we wound our way further into the mountains, the rocky layers doubled and tripled and when afforded the unusual straightaway, loomed larger in the distance. Within the mountain trees, the yellowing leaves took on a deeper shade of gold and red began to pop from amidst the dull green foliage. With each mile we were driving further into fall. After driving "over the mountain" as the directions suggested, Emily and I reached Winding Stair Gap, at 3820 feet, where we would meet Robin.

Once out of the car, the wind was brisk and blowing and the sun that had alighted us the whole way was suddenly swallowed behind a low ceiling of thick clouds. I remembered this gap well from my thru-hike. My father and I had hiked out of Franklin after staying 2 nights at the Budget Inn. We were both still soft-footed hikers having only been on the trail a few weeks at this point in the journey. It had been bitter cold on that late afternoon as we'd hiked just a mile or two up trail and it began to snow. It had been beautiful, but I remember carrying the weight of our trepidation as we'd climbed higher towards the shelter, wondering just how many of those lovely snowflakes we'd watch fall. Clearly this gap is known for its weather.

Showy Gentian - (Gentiana decora) - Gentian is considered one of the most bitter plants in the world. A tincture can be made of its roots (this applies to numerous species, including both G. decora and G. quinquefolia described here), to aid in liver health and digestion. However use only a small amount and/or in a formula to balance its intensity. Pregnant women should not ingest gentian.
But this time, as the three of us climbed now sheltered from the blowing wind, we soon found ourselves stripping layers. Beneath our feet was a thin blanket of yellow and brown leaves, and the waterfall that usually rushes was a slender trickling stream, typical of early autumn around these parts. After about the first mile, the trail leveled out, and we were able to easily amble down the trail, brushed by the periodic American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), fwapping overhead leaves of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), while at our feet we shuffled past the gaze of Doll's Eyes (Actaea pachypoda), fronds of flowering Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and the striped pod-like closed petals of Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora).

Climbing the side trail off of the AT to Siler Bald - check out that Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)!
Within just a mile of the summit, the trail again began to climb. We passed the blue-blazed trail for the shelter. Here, I also remembered well, camping that night as the snow had continued to fall and my father, after 2 dogged hours got a fire started, thrilling the small collection of hikers that had eventually gathered there. Not long after this intersection, we emerged from the thick woods into an open over-grown field. Both Robin and I remembered this field being nothing more than tall golden grass, but apparently, it's been left to grow up, perhaps leaving winter to do its landscaping.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolim)
Hidden within the tall grass and Blackberry brambles (Rubus spp.) was a show of Autumn flowers: late blooming Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) with not only golden blooms but golden leaves, and dense tufts of Stiff Gentian (Gentiana quiquefolia). I wish I had more up close and personal plant photos for you, but it appears I left the camera charger in PA, so for the time being I'm stuck with the cell phone which just doesn't do macro. Here, we also had our first views of the surrounding mountain-scape

Cresting the top of Siler Bald
Now didn't I say something about "epic mountain vistas" in my last post...yea...this is what I am talking about. Once at the top we were afforded 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. Although above us hung heavy clouds, on the far horizon we could see to the edge, where clouds ended and the sun shone light against the mountainsides and into the valley from where we had began.

View from atop Siler Bald
We sat atop a worn log propped against a large slab of dusty colored rock, now decked in hats, gloves, and poofy upper layers, and feasted upon hard-boiled eggs, gruyere, wasabi almonds, dates, and lemon poppy-seed cookies, oh and of course some of those delicious gas station-style honey mustard and onion pretzel nibblers. Some dancing and leaping and general silliness at 5,216 feet also ensued, however these photos will have to come later as they were taken with Robin's camera. Eventually some sprinkles began to fall from those heavy clouds and the chill wind picked up, and so we reluctantly decided that it was about time to head back to the gap. All in all, almost 9 miles and a raucous good time atop Siler Bald.

Emily and Robin heading back down the trail to Winding Stair Gap

Monday, September 29, 2014

Asheville Bound!

View from the MST just outside of Asheville
Asheville, here I come!!! As of Wednesday 10/1, I'll be waking up in these mountains. I remember quite clearly snapping this photo as I began my descent into Asheville on the MST this past summer...I had the thought, how can I possibly leave these mountains...I may leave but no way it's for good. Even then, I envisioned what it would feel like to return again. This very image above was conjured even in my dreams the other night, as I drove into town with some random girl I'd never met before and a regular from the coffeeshop (Filo) where I used to work. We had hopped planes, driven through snow, hitch-hiked, and finally found ourselves driving on Route 19/23 in some unknown vehicle. It appeared as if we were driving into the very mountains that surrounded us as the road is so steep and winding here, but just as we were about to enter into their shroud of fog, the clouds lifted, revealing bright blue sky, craggy rock and a mass of evergreen...and then I realized that by carpooling with these folks I'd forgotten to bring my car. Oops. And this is just how my thoughts have been as of late, a mixture of sweet anticipation and anxiety. I thrive on change, but that doesn't I find it easy to leave where I've been.

The yellowing autumn leaves of the American Chestnut - photo taken just outside of Wind Gap, PA
  I've absolutely adored living in the northeast, roaming the woods of my childhood and discovering so many more trails and cliffs and rocky hideaways than I ever knew existed here. However, with the success of the book and all the amazing connections I made down south, Asheville seems like the place to be right now. And quite honestly, Asheville is my other home. My plan for now is to stay in Asheville for the fall, winter and start of spring and then return to the Northeast to hike the Finger Lakes Trail in New York State. This is a short trail, relatively speaking, being just 588 miles, and after that well.....I'll just have to wait and see!

The Sawkill stream crossing Schocopee Road
And so for now...goodbye rocky trails, modest mountains, and already deeply changing leaves. I'll be looking forward to seeing you in the spring...I'll probably be dreaming of you before I know it!

And hello to steep trail runs, rhododendron tunnels, and quite frankly epic mountain vistas! To my Asheville peeps...I am looking to CONNECT, in the plant world, yoga scene, book nooks, and of course in the part-time work department (cooking/baking/barista). I want to make the most of my time in Asheville, whether its for the short or long term! See you soon!

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"
( 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 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 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: