Summer Botanical Hiking at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

I’ve been quiet on my blog for the past four months. You may have realized this, or it may have escaped your attention. In either case, there is good reason. Since February, I’ve been dealing with a case of severe and prolonged polyneuropathy, which is the presumable symptom of latent multiple sclerosis. As a result, I’ve been far more fatigued and depleted than usual and have had to reduce my activity on this blog in order to focus on regaining my health.

In the interim, I’ve still been hiking and exploring trails in the area. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my favorite trails is at Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where there’s an abundance of botanical life that continues to surprise me. On a recent hike, over the last weekend of August, I was able to take photos of some of the best botanical specimens in addition to my usual trail photography, which I will share in this post along with an identification and brief description of each botanical specimen.

I arrived at the Occoneechee Mountain parking lot in the late afternoon on Sunday, August 26th. The weather was absolutely perfect, hovering in the low seventies with minimal humidity and almost no cloud cover. It was so nice, it was hard to believe it was still summer. The sunlight was golden, bathing everything in a shade of welcoming radiance and promising many photographic opportunities. There were only a few vehicles in the parking lot—which meant I didn’t have to wrestle anyone for a spot—so I promptly parked and embarked on the Mountain Loop Trail.

After hiking the first few hills, I came to a red oak that had a noticeable coating of shelf fungus on the north side. The fungus turned out to be mossy maze polypore (Cerrena unicolor), and the wood of the oak underneath the fungus was brittle and decomposing, indicating that the tree was in poor health and probably wouldn’t live much longer. I stopped and took a look at the fungus, noticing the delineation of colors, which alternated between white and green in clearly identifiable bands. A fungus with this alternation of color is called zonate, and this distinction can be helpful in identifying many species, as it did in this case.

Upon passing the first of many rock formations on the Mountain Loop Trail, I noticed a juvenile loblolly pine tree (Pinus taeda) on the side of the trail and stopped to take a look. There was a mature female pine cone on the underside of one of the branches. Since female pine cones—which are the hard, woody cones that most of us associate with pine trees—often take a year and a half or more to mature, it was clear to see that this loblolly pine, however juvenile, was not to be dissuaded from reproduction by youth.

Hiking further down the trail, I came to one of the most photogenic locations at Occoneechee Mountain. At this point in the trail, there’s a fairly steep hill, at the crest of which is a clump of pine, maple, and oak trees, all of which overlap one another and filter the rays of the late afternoon sun. In late fall and midwinter, when the sun is closer to the southern horizon, the rays of sunlight overlap the trail almost exactly, creating a compelling photographic effect when properly timed. As you can see in this photo, however, it’s still a little early in the season.

After descending the photogenic hill, I followed the Mountain Loop Trail on its course, veering sharply toward the east at the edge of the park. At this point, the trail enters the floodplain of the Eno River, which is still to the north of the trail. Before you see the river, however, you can feel it, as the temperature drops noticeably due to the proximity to water. Another indicator of proximity to water is the increasing prevalence of sycamore and beech trees, which are scattered along the banks of the river and the edges of the trail.

Hiking along the banks of the Eno River, I came to another striking botanical specimen, a yellow wildflower with eight thin petals—each petal is actually a ray floret, an entire flower unto itself—waving in the wind at the top of a four-foot-tall plant. This thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus) is native to the region and predominates in woodland and riparian zones where birds, bees, and butterflies benefit from the added food source.

Following the trail, I climbed a flight of stairs embedded in the side of a hill and came to this escarpment of rock. Along the edge of it, there are numerous maple and beech trees which have taken residence. The escarpment itself is part of an old abandoned rock quarry, which now provides one of the most distinctive sights in all of Occoneechee Mountain. Walking underneath it is something of an exercise in faith and hope, and it’s easy to see how precarious the lives of the adjoining trees must be as a result.

As if in confirmation of that fact, I came to a fallen maple tree, bisecting the Mountain Loop Trail, before I reached the old quarry. There was apparently a fungal infection at the base of the maple’s trunk which eroded its structural integrity over time and left it prone to collapse. With the torrential thunderstorms and heavy winds we’ve had in North Carolina lately—which are becoming increasingly frequent as our planetary climate continues to unravel at the seams—the maple tree wasn’t able to withstand the stress and came crashing to the forest floor.

After passing the fallen maple and the old quarry—where I wasn’t able to get decent photos due to the insufficiency of my phone and the sharply contrasting light—I diverged from the Mountain Loop Trail and joined the Brown Elfin Knob Trail. (There are some names you simply can’t make up.) Shortly after joining the new trail, I noticed a small white mushroom to my right and stopped to take a look. What I found was an ivory funnel mushroom (Cerrena dealbata), one of the more poisonous fungi at Occoneechee Mountain, which produces a nerve toxin that causes salivation, palpitations, and asphyxiation if ingested in sufficient quantities. Fortunately I wasn’t hungry.

There wasn’t much of the trail left after this last botanical encounter, and I returned to the parking lot in short order. With the crisp air and fading light to guide me, it was easy to feel nostalgic. In light of my own health issues over the past four months, I was keenly aware that there will only be a finite number of times in my life when I will be able to see the beauty of late summer at Occoneechee Mountain. Like the fallen maple, my time will come to an end at some point, whether in the near future or many decades from now.

In light of that, I have decided to open the door to possibility. From this point forward, I will be reducing my own input on my blog and making room for others, who share an interest in the preservation of nature and culture and who want to make a difference for the good of our planet. To that end, I will start accepting submissions of original stories addressing personal experiences of nature and culture in daily life. The submissions page (accessible at the top of the page or by clicking here) will be open to anyone and will be your best way to contact me in regards to submitting your own original story for publication on this blog. In the meantime make the most of the time you have left, for life is a gift, not a given.

References:

Cerrena Unicolor,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Clitocybe dealbata,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Fungi growing on trunk/branches,” University of Minnesota Extension, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Helianthus decapetalus,” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, accessed August 29th, 2018.

How to Identify Oak Leaves,” Wikihow, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Mushrooms & Fungi,” Northland Paradise, accessed 27th, 2018.

Pinus taeda,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Pippen, Jeffrey S., “North Carolina Wildflowers, Shrubs, and Trees,” Jeff’s Nature Home Page, accessed August 29th, 2018.

Ten-petal Sunflower,” Illinois Wildflowers, accessed August 29th, 2018.

What Tree Is That?: Tree Identification Field Guide,” Arbor Day, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Advertisements

First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s more easily understood if you think of it as a climatic fever. When you have a fever, your temperature is elevated, yet your body experiences chills as it attempts to fight off infection. This is precisely the situation in which our planet finds itself, attempting to deflect the worst ravages of industrial extraction by hobbling the climate on which industry depends for ease of extraction and transportation. In the process, however, there are numerous side-effects which most media outlets conveniently blame on the natural world rather than the extractive industries which are truly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

This pattern of climatic destabilization – which includes the undermining of established patterns of temperature and precipitation globally – is an increasingly common phenomenon throughout our world and represents another aspect of climate change. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and highly inhospitable global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

At Occoneechee Mountain, this climatic transition was more subdued on my first visit of 2018 than it was in 2017. In 2017, there were flowering plants of every stripe putting forth new growth by January. When I visited Occoneechee Mountain in February of this year on the other hand, there were comparatively few flowering plants in bloom. There were some, however, and there were other signs of spring to be found as well, despite the fact that spring in central North Carolina doesn’t typically arrive until the beginning of April at the earliest.

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential and unseasonable rainstorms that have recently become common in central North Carolina during the winter months. The land was still drenched from the latest rainstorm, and with temperatures in the 60s it felt more like April than February. I got out of my car, started hiking the Mountain Loop Trail, and tried to keep solid footing on ground that might as well have been the last remains of a mud pit.

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

References:

Erythronium americanum,” Missouri Botanical Garden, accessed March 7th, 2018

Callery pear (Bradford pear), Pyrus calleryana,” Invasive.org, accessed March 7th, 2018,

How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina. I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.

There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.

Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.

Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail. Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily flummoxed.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

References:

Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.