Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Place of the Balsams" (Part 2 of 5)

Anakeesta Ridge is easily recognizable from the road near Morton Overlook, just below Newfound Gap. It’s the mountain that’s missing big chunks of soil and vegetation on its high slopes. The geologists call this landslide-prone section of the park the Anakeesta Formation, which is very different from most rock in the Smokies. My Hiking Guide describes the geological underpinnings of this region, but I’m not going to repeat it all because I’d just be repeating words that I don’t fully understand. Instead, here’s a short, and possibly even accurate, summary. This section is composed of a particular type of metamorphic rock closely related to slate that is easily broken and eroded. So, the landslides that plague this section are the result of storms racing up the West Prong valley and raining on land that has thin soil on steep rocks that aren’t particularly sturdy. The soil and rock give way, then when it begins to slide, it not only pushes the landscape below it, but it also pulls down the landscape above it. Those who have witnessed these slides report that the trees seem to be surfing, roots first, on top of the landslide. The trees fall not from being blown down the slope by wind but by having the rug pulled out from under them – thus the “roots first” surfing analogy.

I assume this underlying slate is the reason why most of the steepest cliffs and mountain slopes are in this section of the park: Eagle Rocks, Sawteeth, Charlies Bunion, Jumpoff, Anakeesta Ridge, Alum Cave Bluff, Duck Hawk Ridge, Myrtle Point, Cliff Top, Chimney Tops, and dozens of unnamed rocky scars and ridges. If you like rugged terrain, including frighteningly steep cliffs, this Anakeesta section of the park is the place to be.

By the way, “anakeesta” is a Cherokee word meaning “place of the balsams.” This ridge just south of Mt. LeConte has long been called Anakeesta Ridge. The unique, erodible rock formation in this section of the park was named after that ridge. That was a good call by the geologists because the most dramatically visible scars are on the slopes of Anakeesta Ridge.

So it seemed to me that a guy looking for a good time might want to wander around the steep slopes and exposed rock of this Anakeesta Triangle, to get a sense of the power and drama that Mother Nature exhibits every now and then in the form of heavy rain, landslides, and mud-surfing trees. So Greg Harrell and I spent a few hours on a warm day in March wandering the slopes of Anakeesta Ridge.

About a month earlier we had hiked from the Boulevard and Anakeesta Knob across the ridgecrest of Anakeesta Ridge, hoping to see the landslides from above. Unfortunately, it had been a cold, cloudy day. We could see only a few yards in any direction which probably contributed to our taking a wrong turn down a nameless side ridge. But this blunder opened a new door for us – this side ridge had a lightly-worn path, and it seemed to lead down to Newfound Gap Road. We couldn’t see the road on that day because of the clouds, but we could hear an occasional car, and our map told us that it was less than half a mile away. This nameless side ridge might provide a steep but quick route from the road up to the top of Anakeesta Ridge.

So on this crisp, clear March day, we parked Greg’s car at the parking spot where Walker Camp Prong flows off the slopes of Mount Kephart and under Newfound Gap Road and began walking up the side of that nameless side spur of Anakeesta Ridge. Our hike to the ridgecrest would be steep, which became immediately apparent. Greg’s calculations (he’s the statistician on all our hikes) showed that we would ascend from 4,600 feet to 5,600 feet in 3/10 of a mile. Yes, 1,000 feet vertical in .3 mile horizontal. Compare that to the typical Smokies trail which rises 500 feet in 1 mile.

I never know what to call this type of hike. I tend not to use the word “climb” because the rock climbers with ropes and carabiners are the ones who “climb.” On the other hand, the word “hike” implies walking upright on two feet. The first hour of this hike was somewhere in between. We’d walk steeply but upright for awhile, then we’d switch to hands and feet, using rocks, roots, and limbs to pull ourselves up. I’ve heard people use the word “scramble” to describe this, but somehow that sounds quick and energetic, which definitely doesn’t apply here.

Whatever it was we were doing, it wasn’t dangerous, but it was dirty and slow. [To be continued]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Anakeesta Triangle (Part 1 of 5)

It’s amazing to me that people will pay $20 or $30 to stand in line for an hour for the opportunity to be jostled and scared by a roller coaster, but they’ll run indoors if it starts to rain for free. They don’t want to get wet; although, I’m sure the threat of lightning also has something to do with it. And they have statistics to back them up – more people are killed by lightning than are killed on roller coasters every year. I’m so certain of that, I didn’t even bother to look it up, so I have no source for my conclusion other than the fact that CNN has not reported any roller coaster accidents lately. (The conflict in Iraq? Nothing to report. Slaughter in Sudan or Congo? Not interested. Shark attacks and roller coaster accidents? Now that’s news!)

I suppose the real reason for the appeal of thrill rides and fear of thunderstorms is lawyers. They can help you sue Six Flags but not Mother Nature. The lawyers know this; the tourists know this; and, most importantly, the folks who run the amusement parks know this. And that’s why so few people are killed on roller coasters. The folks who own them make sure that they aren’t really dangerous. They stay on their tracks. The riders are buckled and strapped in. Thus, the thrill without any real danger. You scream while you ride these things, but you know you are safe. And if you do get hurt, you and your lawyer will sue the pants off Six Flags.

Thunderstorms are, of course, different. There’s no one out there overseeing their construction to ensure safety and quality control. If you find yourself caught outside in a thunderstorm, you can’t squeal and laugh, knowing deep down inside that you are safe. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Most of us, including those guys who boldly ride the amusement park rides, will cower in a ditch or beside a rock during a thunderstorm, knowing deep down inside that this thing could kill us.

Of course, you’ve heard that your car is a safe space during a thunderstorm, and as far as I can tell, that’s not just an urban legend. So, if you are ever caught in a heavy rainstorm in the Smokies, just pull off the road, stay in your car, and enjoy the show. If you’ll do that, it will be like the roller coaster – all thrill, little danger (except to the electrical system of your car). But there’s one important stipulation here: don’t park on Newfound Gap Road between the Chimneys Tops Trail and Newfound Gap. The water and lightning probably won’t get you, but the mud, trees, and boulders might.

There’s an area of the park that has been especially susceptible to flash floods and landslides. They don’t happen often – maybe one major event every decade – but when they do, they are impressively dangerous. This danger zone runs roughly from the Chimney Tops trailhead along the main ridge of Mount LeConte and the Boulevard to Charlies Bunion, then west along the main crest to Sugarland Mountain, and down the spine of Sugarland Mountain to the Chimney Tops. Or, another way of saying it: the upper watershed of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, consisting of Walker Camp Prong and Road Prong, plus their numerous tributaries.

The heart of this triangle of danger is Anakeesta Ridge, which is easily recognizable from the road. It’s the one that’s missing big chunks of soil and vegetation on its high slopes. These rocky scars are seen clearly from the top mile or two of the road leading from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap. Stop at one of the parking pullouts near Morton Overlook and look north across the valley. That beaten and bruised ridge with exposed, rocky scars is Anakeesta Ridge. (Behind it lies Mount LeConte; also bruised and scarred.) It’s weathered but still standing, yet it seems to be evolving in the opposite direction from most mountains. We’ve all heard that the Rocky Mountains are young, but the Smokies are older, having that smoothed, rounded, ancient look. As time passes, mountains are supposed to become softer and gentler. Apparently, Anakeesta Ridge didn’t get that memo. It has shed huge slices of soil and trees, exposing steep, rocky scars that would look at home west of Mississippi.

 [To be continued]

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Albright Grove: No Tree Lives Forever (Part 2 of 2)

As Phyllis and I walked through Albright Grove I wondered why this piece of virgin forest didn’t look established and mature, like a 300 year old cathedral.

After some rumination and a few conversations with a few folks who might know, I think I know at least part of the answer. Albright Grove has been slowly, invisibly “logged.”

Some of the logging has been the result of old age. Some trees species will live longer than others, but no tree can live forever. Throw pollution, lightning, wind, and drought into the mix and the result is an old forest with many dead, dying, and broken trees.

Other loggers were small and secretive. They snuck into our forest before we realized what was happening, and once we discovered their covert activity, it was too late. We were defenseless against their attack. This happened in the 1930s when the Chestnut blight (fungus) swept through the eastern US and wiped out virtually all of what had been one of the dominant trees in the East – the American Chestnut.

It was a biological and economic disaster for the animals and the people, both of whom depended on the chestnuts for their life and livelihood. Of course, the forests suffered, but as any biological community will do, it readjusted, filled in the gaps, and flourished in a different form. Where chestnut once dominated, we now see poplar, maple, oak, and hickory.

This tragedy happened about 75 years ago, which is a long time in human terms but not in forestry terms. The death of the chestnuts opened up the forest canopy. The sunlight shone down on the long-shaded forest floor, and the fight was on! Flowers, shrubs, and trees vied for position, creating a botanical chaos for a few years. Gradually, the trees grew up to take the place of the American Chestnuts, but the process is still unfolding. The deep, deep shade of a mature forest is still missing. The massive trunks of ancient trees are missing – except for the few, scattered giants still hanging on in Albright Grove and other portions of virgin forest in the Smokies.

What’s really going on here is the difference between a climax forest and virgin forest, two things that would often be the same thing but not always. Not in Albright Grove.

A virgin forest is one that has not been logged. It is untouched by man. This creates images in our heads of deep, dark forests of huge, old trees. An eastern, hardwood version of those huge, open redwood and sequoia forests of the Pacific coast. What we are visualizing is actually a climax forest – that ultimate stage of a centuries-long process of plant succession. It’s plant succession that is still unfinished in the disturbed forest of Albright Grove.

Plant succession is an interesting process. You see it every September as your family’s vegetable garden winds down for another year, and the grass and weeds creep in. You see it whenever a farmer stops tilling or cutting his field. Almost immediately weeds and shrubs begin their invasion, followed quickly (here in East Tennessee) by the cedars and pines. These are the “pioneer species” because they are the first to arrive. Interestingly, these pioneers create the conditions for their own demise by creating shade and soil changes that enable other species to grow. If the land is sunny and dry then the pines will dominate. If the location is moist and cool then after a few decades, hardwoods will replace the pines. The only question is which species of hardwood will win the battle – Maple? Hickory? Oak? That, too, depends on elevation, moisture, soil type, plus a little bit of random luck.

It’s an evolution of sorts but not the type that Darwin wrote about. It’s not the evolution of a species; it’s actually an evolution (or “development,” if you prefer that word) of the relationships between species. If this was a human community, it would be studied by sociologists, but since it’s plants and animals, the folks who study it are ecologists. Either way, it’s a community that is developing, a botanical and zoological community.
This process of plant succession continues for hundreds of years until this forest community reaches maturity, the climax, usually a deeply shaded forest with a high canopy and shade-loving plants on the forest floor. It’s the cathedral that Phyllis and I were expecting as we stepped off Maddron Bald Trail and onto Albright Loop Trail.

So now, with your expectations adjusted – not necessarily lowered, just adjusted – you can spend four or five hours enjoying the beauty of this part of the park. Go and enjoy this old, virgin, evolving forest. Just remember that it’s a changing forest community, not a cathedral. At least, not yet.