Monday, August 3, 2015

North Carolina's Mountain Treasures--Returning to Alarka

North Carolina's Mountain Treasures--Returning to Alarka 

Dana Koogler 

Friday July 31, 2015

Pictures are here starting with frame 310

Alarka Summer 2015 Photos



   I began my love affair with Alarka in Summer 2003.   It started off lumpy and awkward
and like one of those bad boyfriend type relationships I sometimes have with places.   It was not one of those love/hate type things, but a faltering, fumbling courtship.   It began with the search for Alarka Falls.  The search involved many attempts and the brain and leg power of 
Jordan Mitchell, myself, Kenny, and "Waterfall Rich" Stevenson.   We started searching for the falls at the top.   We ended up finding it thanks to Jordan from the base.    It is good that it went
the way it did though.  Getting confused about roads and trails. Getting rained on. Wandering like the Hebrew children in the wilderness.  All of it took me to different aspects of Alarka.
I read George Ellison's columns about its history.  I gained confidence and went back.  I fell in love with this place and felt it becoming more to me than just the location of a pretty waterfall.
I have a beautiful dream that recurs. In the dream I am going through the rooms and passages of a large, intricate house.  Each passage or room contains its own beauty and secrets and treasures.    I sometimes dream of being on a trail going through a beautiful valley and climbing a mountain side.   I found that the spirit of Alarka is very much alive and if I would listen and 
be patient it would reveal to me various secrets and treasures when the time was right. 
Being there exploring and feeling the spirit of place brought alive in me the same emotions
as that dream. The difference was that I was not dreaming, but experiencing these things in actuality.
It was fantasy come to life for the wanderer.   

         Once I had the confidence to return alone I eventually connected the top route to the base.
I won't forget that feeling if I live to be a hundred years old.   Pure elation!   I began going back and
spending the day there cleaning up trash and checking on the trails.   I thought of Walton Smith and 
his legacy.   I would go out to the true red spruce bog in Springtime.  Each trip brought about
new knowledge and joys.   I had found a spiritual center and a place that resonated with me.

          Last Summer I went later than usual. It was September.  My best friend Cathy had not been 
and I wanted her to have that experience.   We went and found the falls. We made it all the way to the bottom from the top.  It was harrowing. I found a pleasant surprise that there was no
need to maintain trails or pick up trash!  All was in order.   I admit that in the time that passed since 
last September I had grown a bit jaded.  I still loved Alarka, but I began to wonder if all the secrets
had been revealed to me that were to come?  I need not have worried. 

           I came back Friday July 31, 2015.  I enjoyed the beautiful drive and perfect bluebird day.
I had decided on a last second whim to be brave and find out where "East Alarka Road" went.
I turned the jeep left and crept out there on a very sketchy road that wound through deep green 
forest gloom.  The road was rutted, muddy, and very narrow.  I stayed with it and hoped I'd find a 
place to turn around if I needed it.    I found Gunter Gap and an old cemetery there.  I found
red dirt, blue skies, orchids, lilies and one lazy black snake.   I sat down on my haunches and talked to the black snake for a little bit.  Butterflies flitted here and there.   
He was still waking up to start his day so I left him in peace.  

Do you see the black snake under there?

Gunter Gap on an old no name road.   I call it East Alarka Rd.  

First yellow fringed orchid of the season.  

        I found a bonanza of yellow fringed orchids this season.  I found them growing in three areas I had never found them in before.   I also found an abundance of Carolina lilies and more.

Lilium michauxii var. attituve ;-)  If I were a lily.. I'd be just like this. Disheveled! 

       I was very excited about my finds and looked forward to what else the day would hold?
I had recaptured very quickly my sense of wonder about the place.  I got my snake mojo back.
I had satisfied my curiosity at last about where that road ended up.   I could hear the soft voice of my muse leading me again.  I had come today with plans of many things.  I had been planning a quick bombing run through Alarka. I was then going to hit up the Blue Ridge Parkway and some back roads around the Qualla Boundary.   It didn't take me long to realize
I wasn't going anywhere else today.   You don't come to visit an old friend and then rush off.

       I parked at the gap and got out to see what lay ahead.   I left keys in jeep.   I left all but my camera and wandered away.    Part of me was listening to the leading of that voice and I was not
worried about one thing.  I began seeing yellow foxglove, green adders mouth orchid, purple phlox,
black eyed susans, woodland sunflowers,  ostrich ferns, woodland ferns, yellow fringed orchids, daisies, lionsfoot and other Summer delights. I was on a path I had only hiked a few feet of before.
Now I meandered along its course and went in and out through deep shade, then dappled sunlight.
I looked to my right and there in the deep green forest gleamed several dots of red orange. 


Carolina lilies in the woods.  I waded out through the weeds carefully to check to see what 
these were?  I looked at the faces and they lacked the green center star.  They were indeed 
Lilium michauxii.  I found 23 plants in all today in three or four locations.    I began to cry tears of joy over the beauty and discovery.  I quieted and I could feel Jenny's sweet spirit with me.
I could see her smile in my minds eye.   It was a comfort.   I savored every moment of this time.

      I continued further having only the most general idea where I was heading.   It then occurred to me I had no idea how far I had walked and I also had left the keys in my jeep with the windows down, etc.   I had abandoned everything for aimless wandering.   I headed back in that direction.
I was fortunate to find that there was not another soul around and all was as I left it.  
 Prenanthes serpentaria "Lions foot".   It is abundant locally, but up north it has been extirpated due to  over harvesting for its medicinal properties.   

             I drove a bit further and pulled over.  I'd drive. Pull over. Walk around.  Repeat.
I took my sweet time and enjoyed all that I was finding.  I saw more carolina lilies and some that just
were different.   They lacked the green center star of turks cap lilies, but they were a different color from Carolina lilies.    I wasn't sure what was going on, just that they were different.  I could still feel
Jenny's spirit with me.   I was encompassed by joy.
 Butterfly on Carolina lily
Butterfly on what I later figured out is a Michigan lily!

One of many yellow fringed orchids amidst black eyed susies and other pretties.

   I forded the creek and saw a group of two families camping.  They were the only persons
I saw all day up here.  They were quiet and kept to themselves.    I was getting hungry.  I kept on taking photos and exploring.  I found a spring I hadn't even known existed in all these years!
I wandered up through the wildflower meadow and got fluttered by bees and butterflies. 

   Wildflower meadow filled with Eastern bergamot, black eyed susans, yarrow, skullcap, and clematis.   
        I finally made myself stop and eat.  I needed to eat for certain.   Once I had something on my stomach I got some trash bags out and prepared to clean up trash. I then realized I'd be driving around with trash in my jeep in the heat.   I decided it best to make trash pick up the last thing I did before leaving.    Change of plans and I continued wandering yet another trail to see what I could round up?  I found more yellow fringed orchids, ladies tresses, Carolina lilies and Michigan lilies!   I went further and found the trail was getting so little use the vegetation is encroaching very badly.    I had not planned on hiking this entire trail today anyhow.   I decided to come back with a pair of clippers and brush bar and trim back the plants out of the trail.
 Here the trail is very overgrown . Soft rushes in the trail.

 Here the trail is more open.  Appalachian sunflowers lining this section!

    I felt rich indeed.  I was finding so many beautiful things.   Butterflies and bees were everywhere.  I walked back to the jeep at last since I had at least two more locations I wanted to check out.    I headed up toward Cowee to see what I'd find?  I made the Lincoln Town Car turn like a boss and continued up the gravel road.    I began seeing eight foot high lilies!  They were gorgeous. 
I saw tall bellflower, woodland sunflower, more lionsfoot,  phlox and assorted other Summer flowers.
I saw featherbells too!

Reddest lily I ever saw!


Short video of lilies with pollinating butterflies

 Feather bells!  aka Betsy's mystery plant!

    I wandered around Cowee Bald a little while.  I had another trail I wanted to hike and trash still to pick up AND a 2 hour drive home facing me.     I made myself head back down the mountain toward the next trail.  I had found a trail way back in the early days of hunting for the waterfall. I had hiked it before twice out so far and then turned back.  I had viewed it on Google Earth satellite view many years ago, but after  I had hiked it.   I thought according to what I had seen that it went down to a level, flat area and dead ended.  I hiked it today and could see that this trail is being traveled!
It is in better shape by far than the trail to the top of the falls.  I kept going and figured out I had hiked  well past where I believed it would dead end.  I turned and headed back.  I saw one turn off in the direction of the main road.  I also went down far enough to know it must come out in the general vicinity of the base of the falls but to the side of it.  I re checked the satellite view and found that it does come out near the bottom, but far enough to one side to not be necessarily a good alternate plan.
More recon needed! 

            I was growing tired and not wanting to have to drive home.  I also did not want to deal with
that trash, but I made myself.  I used one grocery sack as a glove and bagged 30 gallons of garbage.
I double bagged it so it would not stink or run in my vehicle. All the way home I was wondering if a bee or wasp or ants were going to end up in my jeep with me.  I was fortunate not to have any passengers go home with me.   I am planning a return trip to finish the pick up and maintenance.

Traysh!  Plenty OF IT!  P.U. 

       I made my way slowly home. I stopped along Newfound Gap road a couple times to enjoy the view and stretch.  It helped pep me up for the rest of the trip.  I had a glorious day getting caught up
with Alarka and all the treasures that it revealed to me. Like a friend whispering sweet secrets in my ears.     I won't discount anything from now on.  

Blue bird day from Newfound Gap Road out across the Great Smoky Mountains.

Peach bells of Michigan lily. What a true North Carolina Treasure!
Lilium michiganense is a subspecies of Turks Cap lilies. They can grow as far south as Georgia, but to my knowlege they are unreported as having a representative population in North Carolina. 
I have reached out to the Nantahala National Forest to learn if they were aware of this.

**Note to Self** The trail I started off on from Wesser Gap appears to go toward what must surely be the headwaters of Alarka Creek.   I must return with Kenny and the GPS and hike it through to that point to see what that is like.  
*Note #2 to Self** From now on keep my findings to myself and my closest, trusted pals and leave the gummint and the pros out of this.   My intentions to help are met with a shit storm of cosmic proportions thus harshing my mellow.  No good deed goes unpunished. 

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