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