Into the Woods: Seven Islands Birding State Park

With gathering indoors but a happy memory these days, it’s a great time to get out and hike. We’ve done our fair share over the past few months, but it’s been a while since I’ve posted any trip reports. Some of this is because it’s been a family affair, and carrying a 2-year old limits both how far you can walk and how many pictures you can take while doing it. We’ve hit some of our old favorite spots (Huckleberry Knob), some new ones (Conasauga Snorkel Hole), some farther afield (Hawksbill Mountain in Linville Gorge Wilderness), and lots of walks close to home (Tennessee Riverpark, Chickamauga Battlefield, and Enterprise South Nature Park).

A couple of weeks ago, though, I had occasion to be in Knoxville, and the weather coaxed me to spend some time outdoors. I don’t care much for hiking in the lowland South in the summer—too hot, too humid, too many bugs, snakes, and poison ivy. That week, though, a fading tropical storm working its way up the East Coast pulled some drier, cooler air around its west side, making July in East Tennessee a trifle more bearable for a couple of days. When you’ve lived in this part of the world for a few decades, you know better than to let those opportunities slip by—it might be months before another really nice day comes along.

I opted to take advantage of this particular day to check out a spot I’ve seen signs for but never visited—Seven Islands Birding State Park. I’d read that it had access to the French Broad River, so I went initially with the aim of fishing, but found a lot more.

For starters, this place is beautiful. The River defines the space, looping around the whole park, and there is a very nice footbridge connecting the main path to one of the islands. Due to its open, meadowy nature, the views are also impressive. The Great Smoky Mountains rise just a few miles south of the park, and from one of the hilltops, the whole ridge (including Mount LeConte) opens into view. There are also a few ponds and marshes dotting the area.

Beyond that, the park lives up to the “birding” part of its name. There are birds everywhere. In just a few hours, I saw hawks, herons, and ducks, along with a bevy of songbirds like goldfinches, indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, several different warblers, and other more common species. I heard, though did not see, a few bobwhite quail, too. This was a treat. It was so common to hear their tell-tale whistle in rural Georgia in my childhood, but populations of these ground-dwelling birds have plummeted in recent decades due to habitat loss. In fact, preservation of prime quail habitat is the park’s key goal. There was plenty of non-bird wildlife, too. I saw dozens of deer, hundreds of rabbits, bullfrogs, bugs, a muskrat, and a field mouse.

I did fish (as is often the case, to no avail—with either flies or spinning lures), but the evening light lured me to spend a couple of hours exploring the trails, most of which are wide-mown paths through a tallgrass prairie ecosystem. This plant life was just as impressive as the animals. In a part of the country that is largely comprised of forests, farms, and urban development, it’s not often we get to see native grasses and field plants have their day. I’ve read that pre-colonial indigenous land management practices made extensive use of fire and other methods to cultivate Southeastern prairies as way to increase herds/flocks of game, but these practices haven’t been preserved, leading to a false ideal of “wilderness” that actually eliminates crucial habitat. This little state park is a testament to the wonders of restoration.

I probably rambled about 5 miles over the course of the afternoon, but barely scratched the surface of available trails. I’ll be back, and you should check it out, too. The park is just 5 minutes off I-40 (at exit 402), but a world away.

Unmapped

“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”
—Wallace Stegner

You were floating by fast when I caught you,
Gave you a place to anchor and watched you
Begin to call your home into being.
All you needed for it you brought with you,
So I left you to it, and before I knew it,
We were cemented together here,
Securely as the roots of the mountains.

I wonder where you came from and
Where you might have gone without me.
I wonder what great ships you could
Have beached somewhere else, though who knows
What our children’s children might see
Come to pass right here, in this place
Where we’ve been set, accreting life.

A little carbon and calcium
Is all it takes to move heaven and earth
Around ourselves and find a niche that works,
Amid vast, acidifying oceans.
But of all the polyps in all the reefs
In all the world, just this spot was prepared
For your unmapped geography of hope.

Image: Crystalline Iceplant, Santa Barbara County, Calif., June 2019.

Fire One Morning

Was it for nothing that the blueberry
      In the backyard,
            Its fruit consumed,
      Its year’s growth pruned,
            Caught fire one morning?
I took off my shoes, there in the kitchen,
      Beholding it aflame.

Is this newfound bioluminescence?
      Can a shrub throb with photons
            As surely as neon waves,
      Plankton, a lampshade jelly,
            The lure of a dragonfish,
Alive with luciferin like foxfire
      That startles campers awake?

All life must glow, as dewdrops on a fern,
      The shimmer of scales
            On a fritillary wing,
      Mucosal sheen of a passing slug.
            If the paper-skin of the deceased
Can be translucent, then a blueberry
      Bush may burn yet not be consumed.

Light is not light unless compared to dark,
      And so my squinting
            At the world, charged as it is,
      Is for the dullness of my soul.
            What sparkles through the glass
So dimly may be glory, or it may
      Be the devil, crouching at the door.

Image: Blueberry bush, my backyard, November 2018.

Into the Woods: Southern California

If you read much here, you know that I really like to go hiking, mostly within my context of the Southern Appalachians and the Cumberland Plateau (TN, NC, GA). Sometimes I get to go farther afield, though.

A few years ago, I got the idea to do a big daddy-daughter trip with each of my kids (4 girls) when they turned 10. I set the parameters pretty widely—anywhere within the continental U.S.—and figured I’d let each of the girls’ ingenuity and personality be expressed by their choice of destination. Did that ever come through on our first try!

My oldest turned 10 in July, and stretching the outer limits of my boundaries, chose to visit Channel Islands National Park. You see, she’d read Island of the Blue Dolphins, and was quite captivated with Scott O’Dell’s rich description of place. But still, her answer to “anywhere in the continental U.S.” was “an island off the coast of California!” You get extra points for audacity, though, so we set out West for six days in mid-June.

To make the most of our time and travel expenses—for the record, flights from ATL-LAX on Delta are typically affordable—we spread the net a bit wider to catch several other national parks (Joshua Tree, Sequoia, and King’s Canyon) to get a feel for many of Californias wildly divergent eco-regions. This was made possible in part by the generous  “Every Kid in a Park” program from the NPS. In each place, we did several short hikes, but I’ll highlight the best ones below.

Channel Islands: Scorpion Cove to Smuggler’s Cove
You have to want to get to the Channel Islands. Arriving as we did, in the midst of “June Gloom” (when the slowly warming Pacific coats the coast with a “marine layer” of clouds and drizzle for much of the day), there’s no indication, standing on the wharf in Ventura, that there are islands out there in the mist. In faith, you pile into a small-ish boat for the 20+ mile cruise to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. After an hour and a half or so of bobbing and splashing (and, if you’re lucky, some friends along the way), you make debark onto a small metal pier and into a new world.

We took gear and in order to camp, which provided its own set of adventures. The Scorpion Cove campground (in a valley reclaimed from the headquarters of a cattle ranch from pre-national park days), is small, holding 20 or so sites, with limited sources for drinking water, no plumbing, no electricity, and no fires allowed. All well-traveled campgrounds have animal visitors (people mean food, as all good critters know), but I’ve never seen the level of boldness we experienced from the island foxes, scrub jays, and ravens in seeking a morsel.

After a couple of trips up to Cavern Point (<1 mile walk to the cliffs above the campground) to take in the plant life and sunset, we settled in for the darkest, quietest night of camping I’ve experienced in a while. The next day was cool and cloudy, but as the sun poked through, we broke camp and set out for the Smugglers Cove Trail.

Santa Cruz is a large, long, mountainous island, and the main NPS property is confined to the northeastern tip. Our trail cut across that section, going from sea level on one side of that promontory, up to roughly 700′ in the foothills, then back down to sea level on the southeast coast. The trail is good—wide and well kept, probably an old ranch road—but steep in several places. Word to the wise, we also learned that, once the clouds break up, there is no shade along the route, and these two tree-accustomed Easterners got deeply sunburned.

The remoteness of the park, difficulty of the trail, and the fact that it was a weekday meant that we encountered few other hikers. The terrain shifts made it feel like going from a tropical paradise to the middle of nowhere in Nebraska to a Mediterranean coastal village. There were plenty of interesting flowers and grasses, and an assortment of animals ranging from birds to butterflies to ground bees to harbor seals. Sweeping views of the island (and neighboring islands and the mountains on the mainland) and having a huge gravel beach all to oneself were well worth the walk, though I don’t think my daughter was any too happy with the climb on the return trip. Still this was one of the most interesting hikes I’ve done, and we both boarded our return boat scheming plans to come back someday.

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Joshua Tree: Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Back on the mainland, we treated ourselves to fish tacos, and then made the trek across the L.A. metro to Palm Springs for the next leg of the trip, this time opting for a hotel with a pool instead of camping. In contrast to the cool, moist coastal air, it was 95 degrees in the desert…when we arrived at 10 p.m.! This, plus the sunburns we were already nursing made the prospect of hiking less attractive, so we opted to lay low until late afternoon.

Fortunately, the bulk of Joshua Tree National Park sits on a plateau, 4-5,000 feet above the sea-level-and-below terrain of the Coachella Valley. While the lowlands baked at nearly 110 degrees, it was only 88 or so in the park. Still without much tree cover, it was hot, so we kept our hike short, opting for the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, a 1-mile loop along the park’s main road. There were more people afoot here, but Joshua Tree is more of a winter destination, so still not crowded by any stretch. The loop didn’t present any hiking challenge, but it was a fine spot to marinate in an otherworldly landscape of cacti, jackrabbits, lizards galore, the park’s eponymous “trees” (really a woody species of yucca), and climbable rock formations that could’ve been deposited from the moon.

After this, we drove to another spot for more intense climbing while we waited nighttime and cool temps and stars. As the day drew down, we joined a small crowd of others (and one slightly perturbed sidewinder) at Key’s Point on the west rim of the plateau to watch an unfettered, 180-degree sunset that seemed to last forever. Then, on the way back to our hotel we stopped beside the road to soak in the wealth of stars afforded by the desert and marvel at the nearly instantaneous 30-degree temperature drop.IMG_4453

Of all the places we visited, I was initially least enthusiastic about Joshua tree, but that just means it was the place that surprised me most.

Sequoia: Tokopah Falls Trail
Nothing makes one long for the cool woods of high mountains like a couple of days in the desert, so to close out our trip, we headed north through the central valley and up to the high Sierras and Sequoia National Park. The trees are the stuff of legend, and it’s easy to understand the universal appeal, but that also means that this gave us our first taste on this trip of the standard NPS rigmarole of crowded trails, not finding parking spaces, and people from every corner of the world vying for photos with General Sherman. Still, we had plenty of peace and quiet wandering the meadows and groves of big trees in the main section of the park. If you’ve been there, you know that being in the presence of these giants defies description. If you haven’t, just go sometime, and we’ll smile and nod about it together.IMG_4601

For our last night out west, we opted again for camping (I’m nothing if not cheap), and after exploring all day, we set up the tent at Lodgepole (N.B. – I booked this site 6 months in advance—for a Monday night!). From the campsite, we decided to add one more hike up to Tokopah Falls, a moderate 4-mile round trip following a fork of the Kaweah River up to the very edge of alpine tundra. The river was very full, and we were duly warned from any attempts at getting too close. IMG_4624

Most of the trail was well forested, but at 7,000 + feet, more with spruce, fir, pine, and cedar than sequoias. Here, in the shade, there was still ample snow, and the runoff from higher-altitude melting occasionally made the trail itself into a tributary of the river. About 3/4 of the way in, hikers coming the opposite direction warned us of a bear feeding on grubs in a trailside stump up ahead, but we never made his acquaintance. We did, however see some striking lizards and Steller’s jays and had a near-handshake with a yellow-bellied marmot.

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At the end of the trail, in wide granite basin, is the falls, pouring out from the snowpack along the rim of the Sierra Nevada. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe it, but it felt somehow as majestic as parts of nearby Yosemite, but more intimate somehow, closer. The wind falling into the valley from the snow above was reminiscent of standing below a glacier, and the sunset painted the rocks shades of pink that my camera couldn’t touch. The trip back in the rapidly chilling dusk was so quiet, you could, for a moment, forget you were in one of the most visited national parks and imagine it as it was first encountered.

On the long drive back to LAX after a cold night’s sleep, a less-than-ideal coin-operated shower, and a quick detour to see King’s Canyon, all this started to feel like a blur. But my daughter’s wonder (if you’ve met her, you’ll know that “speechless” is rarely an apt descriptor), even still when she looks at pictures, holds each trail as a moment in time that will keep its place in the memory banks.

Sure, California is crowded, expensive, and over-hyped, but it is truly lovely and well worth a visit. Just take some time to get off the road and see it up close and personally, and reap the rewards.