California Rattlesnake Encounter of the Close Kind

We usually don’t stray far from the coast. On a typical week during the summer, I usually don’t make it more than 10 miles from the coast, buried in the fog and salty air or under towers of redwoods.

Recently, fires broke out in the mountains to our east. We debated which high vantage point to visit to see the fires, or at least the smoke and opted for the one farthest away, hoping to avoid the commotion.

Smoky and Foggy View

The Road Less Traveled [or less shot at]

At the top of Horse Mountain, we didn’t really have a clear view from the usual vantage points, so we trekked up a hill covered in waist-high hoary manzanita and huckleberry oak. Unfortunately, as we just crested the hill, some teenagers pulled up to our car and began their target practicing. Without a clear visual on which way they were shooting, we decided to abandon the little goat path we were on and bushwhack down to the dirt road.

Oops.

See it?!

Bashing through the huckleberry oak wasn’t my favorite–too many spiderwebs [of imaginary black widows, of course], so reaching an open rocky patch was a relief. Just then, the boys with guns broke out their larger arms [a shotgun, I guess], and BOOM! My husband and I, a little PTSD-y from the last time we were shot at, ducked. To my surprise, my husband then took a flying leap, like a wide receiver catching a hail Mary. A low insect buzz accompanied the flying leap: our first meeting with Crotalus oreganus oreganus. Apparently, they don’t like loud booms and people stepping within 6 inches of them.

Here Be Dragons

I’m not going to lie, we were both scared.  I still am not sure how scared of the snake we would have been without the pop and boom of the guns. Considering we stood in that rocky patch for quite a while with the snake pondering our options, I guess we were more worried [or at least I was] about the target-shooting teenagers and the blind approach up to them than standing within a few feet of a rattlesnake.

A Less Hostile Reptile

Eventually we left the rattlesnake, made it to the road, tried to get back to the car, gave up, and walked the other direction until the boys left. No holes in the car and no holes from rattlesnakes. It all worked out in the end, but I’m pretty sure my husband won’t go back until those rattlesnakes are buried under feet of snow again.

Layers of Hills

Conflict: How Best to ‘See’ Nature

My job doesn’t often involve conflict, but I often feel divided on how to approach certain subjects. One subject that I feel is ever-difficult to tackle is if someone has very little time, how should they best ‘get a feel’ of a place: driving all of it, or hike one single, short trail. I find myself agreeing more and more with Edward Abbey. Of course, not fully; I don’t find it necessary to include blood in hikes and travels.  I do appreciate those [i.e. tourists and visitors] that want to marvel at something natural, because that is the path to understanding and appreciating a resource, but I do often disagree with the manner in which people prefer to ‘take it all in’.

It is hard to dispute that America is a car culture. It is equally as hard to dispute that what you see from your car isn’t even half of what you see on foot.  Some folks do feel that just driving through an area means they have ‘been there’ and they can mark it off their list. The loss is theirs, to an extent. I won’t even go into the benefits of physical activity and what the car and television have done to us.

Abbey, while extreme, brings up a good point in his quote below long before cars were so climate controlled, equipped with entertainment centers and pleasant to sit in for long periods. Imagine what he’d say if he found out that children in the future will no longer look out the car window, but instead stare at yet another screen!

Boy Scout Tree Trail

“Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot – throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?”
Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire Introduction page xii, Ballantine Books, New York, 1967

I don’t know, I do rather like people coming to visit National Parks. I be out of a job and entertainment otherwise. But Abbey’s point boils down to the fact that you will glean nothing substantial [aside from treasured family memories, which he doesn’t care to acknowledge] from a place you visit just in your car. And even if you hop out onto a trail, you will still likely not “see anything”.  In order to understand a place, one has to become infused in the essence, character, and rhythm of the place, and that takes time. More time than downloading an app and snapping some shots.

I feel that I accomplished that in the Badlands. It was almost an insult to hear someone condemn the place as ‘snake infested’ and ‘hell-like’ after I had spent hours listening to meadowlarks and grasshoppers and the wind whisper through the prairie grass like frolicking kids playing muted flutes as they skipped around with abandonment.  Such quick judgments without a second thought! But they had no time to investigate, less than an hour was allotted on their trip to pass judgement on a place, check-mark it, and then move on to the next item on the list.  Hard to compete with Wall Drug these days.

Redwoods on Lost Man Creek Trail

The Redwoods are no different. They are an area most people have on their lists, but frequently as just a stop over or at worst, something to drive through on the way to another destination. The only difference is that I myself haven’t had the time to get to know the forest, only to do recon so far.  I had the advantage in the Badlands of living in them, hiking around every evening and day off.  Here, I haven’t made it past my to do list; haven’t had the time to just sit for hours on end with my face in the duff, watching as the mechanisms of the forest move like gears in a giant, fern-covered watch.

The number of trails I’ve hiked is far overshadowed by the number I haven’t, but I rather walk them purposefully than merely check them off my list. Boy Scout Tree Trail was a very nice hike. There are lovely trail descriptions on the web already, so I don’t need to rehash any of that. In my opinion, the best part are the unique and characterful redwoods dotted along the trail side.  The oddness of each hints at their interesting pasts and makes one wonder at their future.

Twin-like Trees on the Boy Scout Tree Trail

I also managed to squeeze in a three hour mile of the Lost Man Creek Trail. Once a logging road, the trail leads along the creek as well as redwoods that show obvious signs of the recent past. Scars from passing logging equipment not only expose the inner layers of the tree, but also the carelessness of our use of vehicles. I’m sure the thought was that the trees will come down,  so no bother. I try to bite my tongue at the irony that the same mindset occurs today even with the trees protected. The same carelessness is facilitating damage to the trees that were spared the ax and saw. Are the redwoods that remain just elegies and tombstones?

Scarred Base

The Old Logging Road

Scarred and Gone on Lost Man Creek

Congaree National Park

 On our visit to Congaree National Park, we found out just how scared we both are of squirrels. Perhaps scared isn’ t the right word; maybe cautious is more accurate, but being on an 8ft high boardwalk with nowhere to run and a very curious squirrel is a situation in which one should be….cautious. [Most injuries at Grand Canyon National Park are caused by people trying to feed squirrels and their kin!]

Other than the squirrels, we had a wonderful visit to a floodplain that has been preserved for future generations. Eighty percent of this amazing park floods about ten times a year [hence why sections of the boardwalk are 8 ft above the ground]. If you ponder it, many National Parks feature erosion [Grand Canyon, Badlands, Bryce, Yosemite, Arches, etc] and only a few are dominated by deposition, but Congaree is a story of both, washing away and depositing sediments.

There are plenty of trails to walk or canoe in the park. The walking trails are both on boardwalk and on the ground and are great for spotting birds, looking at large cypress and tupelo trees, and just using your legs! Even though you are on the boardwalks, it doesn’t mean that you’re separated from the natural world. There is plenty of nature LIVING on the boards and if you look closely, you’ll spot a few neat critters, I am sure!

The neat story behind this park is that it was ‘saved’ from chainsaws. The virgin timber was in high demand but the area had, up until that point, been relatively untouched [sound like ANWAR??]. Through the conservation efforts of one man rallying the community, the trees were saved and steps were taken to preserve what is now the largest area of old-growth floodplain forest in North America.

Lots of walks, talks, and guided canoe trips are offered, even in the winter.  For mosquito season [it is a swamp, of course!], they have a screened-in patio with seating that is apparently for interpretive talks. And to take the guesswork out of how many mosquitoes are out there, they have a “mosquito meter” above the bathrooms, ranging from ‘All Clear’ to ‘War Zone’.  The visitor center is large, lovely, and has lots of neat information [ignore the exhibits mentioning it as a National Monument–it just recently became a National Park].

The moss marks the average flood line.

 

A canoe trail

 

A tiny Magnolia Jumper patrolling the boardwalk.

 

Reflections in the swamp's blackwater.

 

Why hello there!

 

A beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk that didn’t mind us.

For a few more shots of the Park, you can visit my Picasa site: http://picasaweb.google.com/sniehans/20101222Congaree

For official information about the park, go to www.nps.gov/cong

Hiked It Smokies-Style!

A Busy, Busy Place!

Made it to the Smokies right before Labor Day. The first night we camped we were the only ones in our loop! We decided to get all the touristy spots out of the way before the crowds showed up, so we did Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome the first day and there weren’t too many people [still not few enough for me!]. 

Newfound Gap

Clingman's Dome

I found that a circular polarized filter did wonders to cut through some of the smogginess. Whether I remembered to use it was an entirely different matter! 

The Sinks

Cades Cove

 The Ol’ Dusty Trail’s Calling!

After seeing the sights, we decided to hit the trail. It’s difficult to interpret the trail guides and what they define by ‘moderate’ and ‘strenuous’. Taking faith in the fact that they wrote these guides for hikers, and not the average park visitor, is the best way to go, but as you walk up Clingmans Dome with the rest of the world huffing and puffing in your ear, you start to think that the trail marked ‘strenuous’ is calling your name! 

We started our second day late…we don’t have watches and cell phones in the Elkmont Campground are about as useful as a rock [actually less so]. By the time sunlight reached the tent, it was 10 am! I was hoping to get in two smaller trails, but we settled for Rainbow Falls. It went on for quite a while, had beautiful scenery, and some bear sign. The construction workers who were on the road that leads to the trailhead said they’d seen so many bears while working and some other visitors asked if we brought our bear spray. But alas, no bears, just their scat! 

Some critters we shared the trail with: 

Pelecinid Wasp

Pipevine Swallowtail

 

The trail gained 1500 feet in 2.6 miles and was labeled ‘moderate’, which I would agree was fair. It wasn’t too rough of a trail and we only saw 4 other people, I believe. When we finally reached Rainbow Falls we realized that 1, it wasn’t late enough in the afternoon to see the rainbow, and 2, that there wasn’t enough water to make a rainbow! 

Rainbow Falls

It was still a lovely place eat our lunch. As we did, I pulled out my cell phone to turn it on and check the time and aparently, that wasn’t a move appreciated by the hornet nest right above us! They started to swarm and we traded our lovely spot for something more on the safe side. 

Although the Park is renowned as Salamander Capital of the World [no joke! http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/amphibians.htm], I think this fellow below was a newt. Shucks! 

Newt, I presume

The Roughest of Them All!

We started out on Ramsey Cascades Trail later than we hoped, but pretty sure we’d make the 8 mile round trip with plenty of time to spare. This trail is labeled ‘strenuous’ due to the 2000+ feet of elevation gain in 4 miles, which doesn’t sound all that bad. What they don’t mention is that about 1500′ of that elevation gain  is in the last quarter-mile of the trail. Of the ten people we saw on the trail, all of them said it was worth it, but I’m pretty sure no one would turn around at that point anyway! 

The Trail Goes Up!

The trail starts out smooth enough as what seems to be a road! Eventually it shrinks into a one-laner, then goes up and down a couple of times and finally, you get to the boulder-laden trail, the last bit of which nearly requires all four limbs in some spots. We were very glad to see this sight: 

Ramsey Cascades

Just like Rainbow, there wasn’t much water falling, but it was beautiful none the less. And we were warned at the trailhead that this would be a very wet trail if it rained, so I was glad that amount was falling and no more! These are the tallest falls in the Park. 

A Lower View

Again, the polarized filter came in handy and I learned from the previous day’s hike at Rainbow that a tripod was necessary, so I hiked all 8 miles with one strapped to my back and I was very glad I did! 

Oh Bother, Why Bother?

If you aren’t a trail-pounder and if you’re like me and don’t love crowds of people with you on your vacation, you’re probably wondering why should you go to the most visited National Park in the country [though I’ve NEVER heard anyone ponder this, but just in case!].

Cabin in the Woods

It’s an amazing park that has something for everyone, from long, scenic car drives to nice road-side strolls, wildlife, wildflowers and history. If you’re more adventurous, there’s backcountry camping and strenuous hikes to amazing vistas and waterfalls. And there are tons of car campgrounds to fit anyone’s fancy.

One of Millions!

The most alluring aspect of the park is, of course, the topography and the flora and fauna it hides. There is something ethereal about the way that twilight seeps out of the ground and tree trunks as the sun sets, keeping the tops of the trees glowing long after any light can reach the ground. It’s as if the hills have protected this place from passing time, harboring the ancient trees and denizens of forest creatures in deep, vibrant green valleys.

Setting Sun in the Treetops

I’On Swamp Trail

Update!

I’ve been getting a lot of hits on my blog about the Ion Swamp Trail so I went today to check out the conditions.

Flooded Trail in January. High and mostly dry now!

It’s fully passable, just muddy in a few spots and there’s a breach in the dike where you have to walk over some small branches, but the mosquitoes weren’t awful and the birds are very active!  There were a few deerflies around the parking area and at some of the more clear points of the trail. 

We spotted a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a Prothonotary Warbler, a recently-emerged dragonfly, and a few herps.

There were a few trail guides at the kiosk interpreting the rice field history and explanation of the name of the swamp as well as the confusion with the name.

To get there: Take Highway 17 North towards Georgetown. I’on Swamp Rd is almost directly across from the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center [neat place to visit, I think they are still open despite what Google Maps says], but 100 yards or so before if you are coming from the south. Highway 17 is a divided highway and there is an median access directly across from I’On Swamp Rd, which is on the left.  The road curves here, so it’s not too hard to miss. Once on I’On Swamp Road, drive about 2 miles on the gravel road, passing two roads on your left and one on the right [although it’s on a curving-left so you might not see it]. The parking lot for the Ion Swamp Trail will be on the left side.