Into the Woods: Lewis Fork Wilderness

I like special places, spots where quirks of geography, climate, and culture create worlds within worlds. More often than not, at least in the US, these places require access by foot—anyplace we can drive right up to is inevitably overused. No, as Wendell Berry reminds us, one must get “out of your car, off your horse” to truly know a place.

One such place that I’ve returned to time and again over the last two decades is the Mt. Rogers massif in Southwestern Virginia, contained in an overlapping array of federal lands (Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, and Lewis Fork Wilderness). It’s not the highest mountain in the region (though it is the highest in Virginia), nor the most picturesque—just a long, gentle rise to a dome of dark green in the midst of open fields and brambles—four miles from the nearest road and a few miles north of the North Carolina line.

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What makes it special then?

  • To the intrepid souls who attempt a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail (which runs across the massif from west to east), Mt. Rogers is the 1/4-way point for the normal South-North route.
  • To day-hikers from all over the area, it’s the place to come see the ponies—a barely managed herd of small horses allowed to run wild across the mountain to keep the historically bald areas free of of encroaching forest.
  • To naturalists, it’s the farthest north outpost of Appalachian spruce-fir forest.
  • To the solitude-seeker, it is among the quietest places in an otherwise heavily populated part of the world—a long way from highways and flyways, a little slice of “out West” in the Southeast.
  • To me it’s been a place for walking and thinking, vista contemplating, berry picking, and thunderstorm dodging, alone or with family and friends.

Visiting my family in NC last month, I took a jaunt up into Virginia to see it again. Rather than fight the sometimes-heavy summer crowds that can clog the trail on the Grayson Highlands State Park side of the mountain, I started from the Elk Garden trailhead on the west slope.

From the road, the trail is an almost continuous ascent, never too steep—first through open fields (watch for cow pies), then a mixed hardwood forest, then high balds, and finally the close darkness of the spruce-fir forest. These four miles of the AT are much less travelled than the wide, gravelly paths on the east side of the mountain, with brush and grasses closing in and barely leaving enough room to pass another hiker. Of course, that’s not terribly likely—I passed nary a soul on the way up, and only 3-4 people on the way back.

After summiting Rogers, I decided to walk along the ridge to Rhododendron Gap, making a total there and back of 13 miles. There were ponies aplenty, and deer, and birds (ravens, songbirds of all varieties, and even a pair of Canada jays, which are supposedly not even found that far south). It was a bit late for most wildflowers and a bit early for blueberries (though ferns and fungi are always in season), but the overall experience of this place was just as magical as ever.

There’s hardly a better spot to spend a day wandering this side of the Mississippi. It’s a little world unto itself.

Game Theory

A board lies open upon the coffee table,
Twenty-four points, four dice, thirty shining chips.
Toe to toe across the field these five thousand years
Have sat friends and warriors, suffering through its fun.
Fiercest strategies on the line with each quick roll,
The wildest chances undone by other well-placed men.

In another’s eyes glow the wishes of all men,
Their fears and dreams laid at the altar and table.
We cast our lots, counting on the skill of our roll.
Time and chance shave down our purposes, bits and chips,
Husking us from the inside-out as though for fun.
Ambition, sin, spite work their chaos through the years.

Little bits of wasted time gather into years.
Energy poured into safely bringing home men,
‘Round the board again, again, just for fun.
Life, pique, and laughter unfold across the table,
No anguish outlasting the resetting of chips,
No happiness beyond the reach of one bad roll.

Clear heads seldom prevail when disappointments roll
Down troubled brows, breaking hearts and ruining years.
Carefully stockpiled wealth cashed out like poker chips,
Paid out in snippets to cadres of bluffing men
Peering from between stacked forms on a bank table.
Whoever said this game was supposed to be fun?

To call it mental exercise is to poke fun,
Serious analysis gets a big eye roll,
But there is value yet in this ancient table.
Passing time in contest bears the wisdom of years
Giving vent to the zeal of competitive men,
Spending their frustration crunching potato chips.

When joy depends on the work of silicon chips,
And every moment is given to hunting fun,
Perhaps we are all Eliot’s hollow, stuffed men.
In time, though, Peter (or someone) must call the roll.
The curtain drops on our eternally numbered years;
Six men and true carry us to one last table.

The dice may be loaded, still we cannot but roll.
Listen as the plans and paths of our striving years
Rattle down to His body, His blood, His table.

Into the Woods: Jacks River Falls

As the spring hiking season winds down (and the temperature winds up), I was fortunate enough to get one last good trek in. This happened to combine three of my favorite types of hike: 1) remote (i.e. uncrowded), 2) new turf for me, and 3) solo. This was as much of a prayer walk as a recreational hike; the quiet of the forest is rejuvenating on many levels.

This time, I went back to the best local hard-to-access place: Cohutta Wilderness in Chattahoochee National Forest. Most of the good trailheads in Cohutta are 50 miles or so east of Chattanooga, about an hour-and-a-half of drive time (It takes about 45 minutes to go the first 40 miles and about 45 minutes to go the last 10). The forest service roads leading into the Cohutta area are typically narrow, rutted, and hard on cars. Even so, I’m almost always able to get where I’m trying to get in my trusty Nissan.

Having heard for years about the clear and beautiful Jacks River, a tributary of the Connasauga River that flows nearly its entire course within Cohutta, but never having explored it, I decided to make for Jacks River Falls in the northwestern corner of the wilderness. It’s a 9-mile round trip (4.5 in, then retracing your steps), so perfect for a day trip.IMG_6308

After the expected long and bumpy ride to the Beech Bottom Trailhead, I hit the trail about 9:30 a.m. in thick fog and drizzle (after heavy rains the night before). The first mile or so of the trail was actually less steep and in better repair than the road, and the overall elevation change over the course of the trail is very minimal.

The wilderness status of the area quickly becomes apparent when you start coming to downed trees across the trail. Whereas in state and National Parks and more travelled areas of National Forests, trail debris is largely kept at bay by staff and volunteers funded through usage fees, the “back-to-nature” management of wilderness areas keeps trail maintenance to a minimum. Through those 4.5 miles, I must have passed over, under, or through no less than 40 downed trees (really 80, considering it was a there-and-back hike), most appearing to have fallen very recently. It has been a very wet spring in the area (with 20+ inches of rain since March 1), and soggy soil makes for easy uprooting in a good wind. There were a few creek fords as well, but none so deep or wide that I couldn’t navigate them without getting my socks wet. Continue reading

Into the Woods: North Chickamauga Creek Gorge

After a rather lackluster (or, for the cold-natured among us, pleasant) winter, the Tennessee Valley is in the full throes of spring. This means it’s high time to spend every dry weekend outside before heat, copperheads, spiders, and poison ivy tempt me to retreat to more air-conditioned environs. Fortunately, the area affords many such opportunities within a short drive.

Today’s entry was a spot that I’ve not explored much before, despite it being less than half an hour from home. North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State IMG_6089Natural Area is just a couple of miles off a major highway, and bordered by subdivisions. In the midst of expanding suburbia, this 7,000+ acre preserve is quite the breath of fresh air.

It’s water rather than air, though, that defines the space here. Unlike where I grew up in Western North Carolina, water isn’t as ubiquitous here, even with over 50″ of rain in an average year. It’s plentiful enough during winter and spring, but long, dry summers snatch up surface water, keeping the forests around here much drier than in the main spine of the Appalachians (or even the western side of the Cumberland Plateau). The gorge floor in August is almost a dry riverbed, but in March it is a clear, cold, forceful stream. In fact, we had to cut our walk short because the water was too high to ford safely where the main trail crosses the creek.

North Chick was until 2006 one of several “Pocket Wilderness” sites tucked into cracks in the plateau and set aside for public access and recreation by the former Bowater paper company. This gesture of goodwill was not as altruistic as it seems, as the Pockets’ steep, rocky terrain made them as useless for pulpwood harvesting as they were good for recreation. Most of the former Pockets have been transferred to state or federal conservation agencies, with most (this one included) roped in to the Cumberland Trail network.

Of the hike itself, I don’t have much to say. It was a pretty day and the grandparents had the kids, so most of our visit consisted of sitting on a rock by the creek talking. Aside from the main trail, we ventured a bit up the lower Hogskin Loop.IMG_6096 It’s very rocky, but nothing too hard. We simply weren’t in the mood for strenuous hiking today.

Like most creek bottoms, the relative preponderance of water means more vegetation than the slopes above. Given the seasonal pattern of moisture as well, spring is the best time to see the most unique and fleeting plant life. The best wildflower blooms are still a few weeks off, but many are already breaking through the leaf cover. Delicate trilliums, geraniums, and others soak up as much light as they can in the few weeks between last frost and the full leafing of the forest canopy. This was a very healthy forest, for whatever reason spared the underbrush takeover by invasive bush honeysuckle and privet that characterizes so much of the region. Native understory shrubs like mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron, mapleleaf viburnum, and red buckeye are here in abundance.

This little nook of our county is quite a spot, and a good reminder that sometimes a long way away can be right around the corner. Every metro area needs a little wilderness to spice it up, and Chattanooga certainly has these in spades.