Saturday, December 9, 2017

Urushiol, Scourge of the Forests

But first, a public service announcement about a certain substance found on three-leafed plants throughout North America--urushiol.

If you've done much in the way of hiking, camping, bushwhacking, orienteering, or any other activity that involves tromping around wooded areas, you've probably come across this plant:


If you're one of the 80% of humans who react on contact with it, it has made your life a living hell for weeks after the fact. And if not, then just you wait--one of these days, you will be.

This three-leafed, hairy vine causes millions of rashes and blisters each year. It grows in an impressive range of climates and soil types: from the Caribbean to the Arctic, and from flood-prone bayous to thin-soiled mountainsides up to 5000' in altitude. It and its sister species account for 10% of all lost-time injuries in the United States Forest Service. And as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase, it's only growing larger and more potent.

I speak, of course, of Toxicodendron radicans, known to most folks as poison ivy.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

VA County Highpoint: Comers Rock, Wythe County (4080')

A couple of weeks after that, I found myself in Wytheville for the weekend with a friend. We had some time to kill, so I suggested we hike the high point of the county, Comers Rock.

I'd tagged a couple of Virginia county highpoints while chasing other goals (Mt. Rogers, naturally, is the high point of Grayson and Smyth Counties, and Hawksbill Mountain tops off Page and Madison), but this was the first one I'd done intentionally.

We took US-21 south into the easternmost arm of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and pulled off at the forest road to the summit:

Not suitable for passenger cars, but we saw several ATV'ers on our way up.

The road took us up through a valley, around a peak:

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Signal Knob, VA (2106')

In the early autumn, I headed out to the Massanutten Mountains for a bit of weekend backpacking.

If you've never heard of them, the Massanuttens are a fifty-mile-long range (or a single fifty-mile-long mountain, depending on who you ask) smack-dab in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. They're the easternmost in Virginia's slice of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, a family of long, steep-sided, flat-topped ridges that pop up between the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Plateau from southeastern New York to Alabama. Their shape is quite distinctive, as you'll see in this aerial photo (not my work):

...which contrasts them with the Blue Ridge to the east (right).

But I grew up attending a summer camp in the Massanuttens, so until I was much older than I'd care to admit, I thought all mountains looked like that.

The range tops out at 2922', a thousand feet lower than its eastern neighbors. That altitude disparity, and the lack of roads and developed campgrounds atop the ridges, spare them the crowds that flock to Shenandoah National Park. But there's still plenty to see in the Massanuttens: the range is full of trails and gullies and scrambles and weird little microbiomes that range from quasi-krummholz to cacti.

After considering a couple of spots, I settled on Signal Knob, the northernmost tip of the range and a five-mile, ~1000' hike from the valley floor. I'd driven past the peak dozens of times (it's clearly visible from the single-digit miles of I-66), but I'd never stood on top of it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Waterfalls at Ocoee, TN (~900')

Later that week, my friends and I drove out to a little trail not far from the shores of Ocoee Lake, a hydroelectric reservoir on the western edge of Cherokee National Forest. My friend from Chattanooga had taken me up this way before; he recommended it again as a short, gentle hike that would fall within our joint athletic ability (there's a reason I only took one of these friends up Roan Mountain).


As you can see from the sign, the Clemmer Trail's main attraction is a pair of waterfalls along Rock Creek, one of the many mountain streams that feeds the lake. The area is also frequented by mountain bikers, though we were fortunate enough to not run into any of them while traveling uphill.

The trail started off with a fairly steep ascent, but soon leveled off into a wide, flat creek valley. It continued thus for a bit under two miles:


then, as the mountain walls closed in, it switched us back and forth across the creek until we came to the first waterfall:

Friday, September 8, 2017

Huckleberry Knob, NC (5560') ...and the Great American Eclipse

Chattanooga--and my friend there--proved quite hospitable. My hiking buddy and I arrived at his place in the late afternoon; later that evening, another pair of friends from Northern Virginia joined us. We spent the next day resting from our various drives and lives, then turned in early that night.

Our plan for the following day was to drive up the Cherohala Skyway to the bald summit of Huckleberry Knob, the high point of the Unicoi Mountains. Though a thousand feet lower and much less prominent (both topologically and in terms of renown) than its northern cousins, the Smokies, that peak was smack-dab in the middle of the Great American Eclipse's path of totality. On any other day, it'd be a gentle 1.2-mile stroll from the Skyway--pleasant, no doubt, but hardly worth a ten-hour drive--but for two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, starting at 2:35 pm on Monday, August 21, 2017, the sun above that mountain was going to disappear. And we planned to be under it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Southern Sixers: Roan Mountain, NC/TN (6267', 6286', and 6189')

The Friday before the 21st, a friend and I headed south from Northern Virginia, hoping by our early departure to beat the worst of the eclipse-weekend traffic. As far as I know, we did, but there were still about twice as many accidents as usual along I-81 southbound through the Valley. Things cleared up somewhat once we hit the plateau west of Blacksburg, and they stayed that way until Bristol...

...where our route happened to take us past the Speedway on a race day. The two-mile stretch of US-11 running past it was lined with parking lots, carnival tents, and streams of pedestrians homing in on the racetrack. Even if that 162,000-seat stadium was only half full (which it might well have been; the night's race was only a minor one), it held a crowd one-sixth the size of the population of the Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City region, all of whom had turned out in their best on that drizzly summer evening to watch a bunch of cars drive loops around a half-mile track. I guess you have to grow up out there, in NASCAR country, to get it.

My friend and I, however, drove on by. Our reason for detouring off the interstate lay further down the road, up US-19E among the western slopes of the Blue Ridge--which, after a summer wasted in the flatlands, looked so rugged and green and beautiful that I could barely keep my eyes on the road. But I did, and shortly before dusk we arrived at the base of Roan Mountain, a twenty-mile ridge along the TN-NC border home to three peaks above 6000 feet and the longest grassy bald in the southern Appalachians--and conveniently located two-thirds of the way to Chattanooga, our base of operations for the eclipse.

The campsite I'd reserved in Roan Mountain State Park, one of only three available when I'd picked it out two days before, turned out to be an RV site:

Note the utter lack of soft, flat ground suitable for pitching tents.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Heads Up!

Tomorrow morning, the Lars and I are heading south to catch a glimpse of the Great American Solar Eclipse (August 21--this Monday!).


Along the way, we're hoping to take in a few of the Southern Sixers and some other points of geologic interest in east Tennessee. Polish up your reading glasses for more Larvitour!