On The Massanutten

150705_VA Massanutten_0708acsOn Skyline Drive, in all but the deepest fog, there is no missing the Massanutten. How can you overlook a 50 mile long mountain that runs through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley? It’s so big it has its own valley, for gosh sakes!

Signal Knob, Massanutten’s northern peak, has long held a fascination for my friends and me. So, naturally, we wanted to climb to the top of it.

5 miles each way? 2700 feet of elevation gain?

What could go wrong?

150705_VA Massanutten_0799aAt first, the narrow Signal Knob trail climbed gently along a small run through deep moist woods. Ferns, mosses and shrubs adorned the understory. We passed on old building and then a spring. Beyond that the trail turned sharply and began to climb steeply.

150705_VA Massanutten_0774acsJust past the spring I found a purple mushroom. Purple!

150705_VA Massanutten_0800acsThe forest became drier as we climbed higher, and we started seeing talus slopes to the left. Talus, or scree, is an accumulation of broken rock and boulders that have crumbled, and then tumbled, from cliffs higher on the mountain. The lichens that cover the rocks give them their greenish tint.

150705_VA Massanutten_1011acsThe trees thinned to the right and we began to get views across a valley to another slope. An argument ensued between Don, who was certain we were hiking on the west arm of the Massanutten and looking at the east arm, and Robb, who was certain he knew where north was and that Don had it backwards. This argument continued for most of the walk, and I am not certain it ever got cleared up satisfactorily.

Because they weren’t listening to me. I suggested that we were hiking on the east arm of the Massanutten, and looking across a small valley at another ridge on the same east arm, in the opposite direction of the other arm of the mountain. Guess who was right?

You got it. But does anyone ever listen to me? Nope, no one ever listens to me.

150705_VA Massanutten_0992acsArguments (temporarily) shelved, we continued up the trail. Soon the habitat got seriously weird.

150705_VA Massanutten_0853acsThe first hint was the presence of low-bush blueberry.

150705_VA Massanutten_0990aFollowed by black jack oak. Mountain laurel. Sand on the trail.

150705_VA Massanutten_0987acsPines with three needles, and – oh look! Needles growing out of the trunk. Pitch pines!

Wait, did we take a wrong turn? How did we end up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens?

We didn’t, of course. In this part of the Appalachians, dry southwest-facing slopes with poor sandy soil support many of the same trees and plants we see in the Pine Barrens.

The similarity in flora to the Pinelands fascinated us for the rest of the hike.

150705_VA Massanutten_0856acsHere’s one of the rare rocks that wasn’t covered in lichen and moss. The weathering of the quartz-rich stone here was the source of the sand under our feet.

150705_VA Massanutten_0893acsThere were lots of rock formations along the way, one of which Robb just had to climb…

150705_VA Massanutten_0931acs1Don just had to follow…

and then me too, because it was such a nice cool place to rest.

Then I just had to take their picture.

150705_VA Massanutten_1034acsA short time later we reached the Buzzard Rock Overlook. That’s “Overlook.” I thought we were standing on Buzzard Rock, and was unimpressed.

150705_VA Massanutten_1047acsThen I learned we were looking across the valley at Buzzard Rock, which was a dramatic rock formation on the other side of the Passage Creek valley.

At this point we had been hiking for 2½ hours but had covered only 1½ miles of the 5 miles to Signal Knob. The trail from there only gets steeper and rockier. By now, any thought Don had of getting to Signal Knob had vanished, and we all agreed Buzzard Rock Overlook was enough. Besides, it was time for lunch.

With that, we turned around and walked down the way we had come up. A 10 mile hike to Signal Knob turned into a 3 mile walk to Buzzard Rock Overlook. Don claimed that was the plan all along. Conquer the Massanutten?

150705_VA Massanutten_1004acsMaybe we gentled it a little.

No matter. We’d scrambled over rocks, argued over directions, puzzled over trees and shrubs, exclaimed over magic mushrooms, marveled over views. In the end, we’d gained something far more awesome than we’d bargained for, an intimate experience with a massive mountain.

All in a day on the Massanutten.

Oh, Shenandoah! (Reprise)

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0514acsIndependence Day, 2015. The day Don and I returned to the scene of the crime. The offense? Visiting a National Treasure without Robb. This Fourth of July we were to serve the term of our punishment.

Three months after we left Shenandoah National Park, we returned for a weekend, this time with Robb in tow. A chance for Don and I to introduce him to the wonders of Skyline Drive.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0485 aWhat a change in the landscape! When we left in April, the mountainsides were mostly brown with tinges of the lime green of new spring growth. Now all is lush dark green.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0400 acsWith plans to hike to up The Massanutten toward Signal Knob the next day, Robb and Don took the opportunity to take a compass heading and puzzle over the proper approach.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0423 acsRobb on one of the rock faces that line parts of the east side of Skyline Drive. Now who’s doing the hard time?

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0551acsWith all these vast mountain vistas and valley views in a new environment, what’s Robb looking at? Plants, of course.

There’s this one spiky flower we kept seeing along the roadsides as we were driving.

We couldn’t identify it on the move, but it was never present at the overlooks.

Finally Robb and I walked back along the road to take a closer look.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0559acsArmed with a hand lens and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, we were able to identify it as Cimicifuga racemes, commonly called Black Snakeroot or Black Cohosh. Mystery solved!

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0616acsA tree and granite vignette.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0585acsHeadlights appear from the mist. Shenandoah’s only tunnel bores 670 feet through the granite of Marys Rock. Fog along the Skyline Drive. How – familiar.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0619acsFranklin Cliffs never ceases to delight. I could spend the whole day here, clambering around on the rocks. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0647acsMan vs. mountain. From the looks of it, the mountain won.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0686acsAlways an argument with these two.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0628acsCedar Waxwing, wearing a robber’s mask.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0548acs copyColumbine.

Robb and I had wanted to walk to a waterfall. Small problem – the crowds. It was the Fourth of July in one of America’s most popular National Parks, after all.

We opted instead to take the hike to the top of Stony Man, knowing Robb would love scrambling around on the boulders.


150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0690acsExcept that those boulders were covered with people. On the horizon, ominous dark clouds were quickly swallowing the views. And as we turned to leave, the skies opened up.

Oh great. Thunder and lightning. And there were Don and I on the second highest peak in Shenandoah, clutching metal trekking poles. Cruel and unusual punishment.

The rain was relentless, and we were walking downhill in a rushing streambed that used to be a trail. Oddly, I was thoroughly enjoying it. I’d not been feeling well that day, but the rain was cooling and rejuvenating. Even when I had to pour it out of my “waterproof” boots at trail’s end.

As we reached our car, the rains stopped. But of course. By the time we returned to Skyland Resort for a brief stop, the skies were clearing and the sun was coming out. The mountain air had a delicious washed-clean feel to it.

Later, in a nondescript hotel room, a different kind of washing took place. Don used a hair dryer on his cash, blowing dry each individual paper bill. Money laundering at its most elemental.

Same scenery, different crime.

150704_VA Shenandoah National Park_0666aRobb relishing the view from Franklin Cliffs, while Don and I served out our sentence for neglecting him, with no time off for good behavior.

If spending a day in Shenandoah National Park is “punishment”, I’m going to have to be very, very naughty.

Wildflowers and Woods

Appalachian Spring Title Subtitle

Old trees float on a sea of wildflowers, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Old trees float on a sea of wildflowers, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Our timing was way off.

Best to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the peak of fall foliage season, or in summer when the mountains are a lush deep green. Instead we were there during mid-April, before the trees leafed out. The mountains were still a dull grayish brown in all my photos. And did I mention the rain?

Squirrel Corn, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

Squirrel Corn, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

Our timing was spot-on in one sense, though – we visited in the peak of the spring ephemeral wildflower season.

Many wildflowers live their entire above-ground life in a few weeks in the spring.

Taking advantage of warm soil, abundant moisture, and the full force of the unfiltered sunlight, these fleeting beauties awaken in early spring.

Drawing on last year’s reserves of energy, they send up stems and leaves while gathering and storing as much fresh energy as they can. They bloom, and set and disperse seeds.

Not all violets are purple. Clockwise, from top left: Canadian Violet, Early Yellow Violet, Woolly Blue Violet, Bird's Foot Violet.

Not all violets are purple. Clockwise, from top left: Canadian Violet, Early Yellow Violet, Woolly Blue Violet, Bird’s Foot Violet.

Feeding and reproduction complete, the flowers, stems and leaves wither and die, leaving the strong roots and rhizomes below the soil to enter dormancy until the next year.

Rue-anemone, Deep Creek Trail.

Rue-anemone, Deep Creek Trail.

All of this activity in just a few short weeks, and we happened to be there to see it!

Showy Orchis, Deep Creek Trail.

Showy Orchis, Deep Creek Trail.

Plant diversity in the Smokies is matched by only a few areas worldwide. Nearly 1500 kinds of flowering plants call the southern Appalachians home.

Fringed Phacelia, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

Fringed Phacelia, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

Abundant rainfall, coupled with a wide range of elevations, provides a variety of habitats for our leafy friends. Most of the park is heavily forested. There are eight distinct forest types.

The Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.  Photo by Don Nigroni.

The Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.
Photo by Don Nigroni.

Don and I wanted to explore an old-growth forest, something neither of us had experienced before. We chose the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, which winds through a cove hardwood forest in Sugarlands Valley.

This cove is cool, sheltered and very moist, with tiny runs seeping from the slopes everywhere. Thirty species of trees are found here, including white basswood, yellow birch, tulip poplar, and hemlocks.

Yellow buckeye tree, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

Yellow buckeye tree, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

The old-growth forest area starts in the upper reaches above the logging limit, where the forest has never been altered.

Many of the trees have lived a long time, and are really big.

This venerable giant, a 150 year old yellow buckeye, stands 100 feet tall.

Unlike the disturbed forests we are used to, the understory below the widely spaced trees is wide open.

The ground is not, though. A riot of mosses, shade-adapted plants and those wonderful spring ephemerals carpet the soil.

The Forney Ridge Trail winds through a boreal spruce-fir forest.

The Forney Ridge Trail winds through a boreal spruce-fir forest.

I fell in love with another unique forest ecosystem we encountered a number of times, the boreal spruce-fir forest. This type of forest is found in the North Woods of Maine and Canada. So what’s it doing in the Southern Appalachians? Ice, ice, baby. During the glacial periods, the trees and plants of the far north migrated here ahead of the glaciers. They found a favorable climate in the high altitudes of the Smokies and stayed after the glaciers retreated.

Spruce-fir forest on the Forney Ridge Trail.

Spruce-fir forest on the Forney Ridge Trail.

The loftiest slopes of Clingman’s Dome and other high peaks are draped in red spruce and Fraser firs. The day we trekked the Forney Ridge and Appalachian Trails, the woods were cloaked in a heavy mist. I felt we had entered a mysterious fairyland, softly decorated in deepest green and luscious auburn. Little dewdrops hung suspended from spruce needles. Mosses clung to both standing and fallen trees, while lichens coated the rocks.

Mist dripping from spruce needles.

Mist dripping from spruce needles.

Living and skeletal Fraser fir on Clingman's Dome.

Living and skeletal Fraser fir on Clingman’s Dome.

There is a sadness in the boreal woods, though.

Since the 1960s, the Fraser firs have been decimated by a non-native invasive insect known as the balsam woolly adelgid.

This nasty critter eats the sap of the tree while injecting a toxin that kills a tree in a few short years.

The forests are littered with the ghostly skeletons of dead Fraser firs. It is all too common to see numerous bare tree trunks standing amidst live firs.

What a shame it would be to lose these majestic trees altogether.

Fraser firs on Clingman's Dome.

Fraser firs on Clingman’s Dome.

During our time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I counted 25 different flower species that I was able to identify, and more that I couldn’t put a name to. We walked through southern woodlands, and forests more common to the far North.

We came to the Smokies for the mountains, but left awed by the wildflowers and the woods.

Spruce-fir forest along the Appalachian Trail.

Spruce-fir forest along the Appalachian Trail.

Maybe our timing wasn’t so bad after all!

Map GSMNP Wildflowers & Woods

Weird and Wonderful Plants

141225 Longwood Gardens_3410acsThe Conservatory at Longwood Gardens is a welcome respite from the dark and dreary days of winter. Outside the landscaped grounds are cold, bleak and brown. Step indoors and we are welcomed with warmth and color.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3581acsBeautiful flowers are everywhere. Some dangle in delicate shades of blush…

141225_Longwood Gardens_3584acsWhile others offer a brighter palette.

141225 Longwood Gardens_3511aPast the Main Conservatory and the Exhibition Hall, the Silver Garden and the Banana House, each step deeper into the labyrinth of corridors and rooms reveals ever more exotic plants. Bird of Paradise.

141225 Longwood Gardens_3503acsRound the bend and we are met with a shaft of sunlight illuminating some unusual leaves. Ram’s Horn Croton.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3564acsWalking into the Fern Passage brings us among some truly weird and wonderful plants. Look up! See the intricate pattern made from the spore-dotted fronds of the Australian Tree fern that towers over your head.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3560aTurn another direction, and we find ourselves face to face with suspended carnivorous pitcher plants. Smaller ones share a planter with tiny Venus Flytraps.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3592acsWait – our favorite plants seem to be missing. Where are the club mosses? This is Longwood Gardens; they simply have to be here.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3600acsAnd they are. In fact, we were looking right at them. A helpful staff botanist is happy to show us what we missed.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3595acsNot mosses at all, club mosses are vascular plants. We are familiar with Lycopodium, which resembles a teeny tiny Christmas tree, but on this Christmas day, we are introduced to Huperzia, sometimes known as fir moss.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3594aThese particular Huperzia are called Tassel Ferns.

141225_Longwood Gardens_3550aPassing through the Cascade Garden, we find ourselves in the Rose Alley, which speaks to us of both spring gardens and tropical climes. Water droplets glisten on colorful hibiscus.

141225 Longwood Gardens_3531aOutside it is cold and windy, but inside the Conservatory of Longwood Gardens winter dreams blossom into weird and wonderful life.

Winter’s Edge

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1513acsLong gone are the warm days of summer, days when families crowded the beach with their beach blankets and umbrellas, their sand pails and horseshoe sets. The only creatures frolicking in the surf are ducks. The stiff ocean breeze, so welcome when the temperature was 80°, is a torment at 35°. Autumn lingers, but teeters on the edge of winter. The beach is empty.

Of humans, but not of wonders.

At last, the beach is ours!

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1563acsFrom late fall to mid-spring, the Jersey Shore is ours to explore, empty of crowds and noise. Now there are plenty of treasures to collect, shells and rocks and sea glass, safe from the many feet and the mechanical beach-sweepers of summer.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1555acs2Lines of dune fencing stretch across white sand to the horizon.

141128_NJ Holgate_2948acsThe winter birds arrive at the Shore with the colder weather. Long-tailed Ducks bob in the waves. The females seem to have a lot to say to the pink-billed males.

141128_NJ Holgate_2706acsThis sparrow-like bird is a Snow Bunting.

141128_NJ Holgate_2774acsAs we walked along the beach at Holgate one November day, we kept seeing these odd tree sculptures. For a bit, we thought some enterprising soul had placed driftwood on end as an artistic expression. Then we realized that these were the broken stumps of dead trees, and we were walking amidst what once had been wooded dunes.

141128_NJ Holgate2902-5 Pan acsThe dunes at Holgate, looking west toward Barnegat Bay. The southern tip of Long Beach Island is a part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. It didn’t always look like this. Only a few years ago, it was a thicket of dune plants and shrubs. Then Superstorm Sandy paid a visit, inundating the entire area, breeching the island from bay to ocean in places. These weathered roots, trunks and branches are what are left of once vital vegetation. Devastated, but starkly beautiful.

FUN FACT: These plants were flooded with water, but died of thirst. Why? Fresh water flows easily into a plant through the tissues of the roots, a process called osmosis. But this was a saltwater inundation. Ever have a salt shaker gum up in humid weather? Salt absorbs water very easily, pulling water from the plants into the soil and leading to dehydration. It also interferes with the chemical processes by which a plant obtains nutrients. The combination of nutrient and water deficiencies has laid waste to the dune plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1480acsThis is what a healthy dune community should look like. Stone Harbor Point.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1520acsGood fences make good neighbors.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1489acsDune fences make good dunes, and if successful, good dune grasses and plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1552aGood fences make good backdrops for wildflowers, still abloom in mid-November.

141122_NJ Hereford Inlet_1646acsOne doesn’t have to go far from the beach to find woodland critters. The gardens at Hereford Lighthouse provide a fine place for squirrels to make a living.

141122_NJ Nummys Island_1892acsIn the late light of day, a pair of American Oystercatchers squabbles.

Even on the edge of winter, wonders abound at the wild edge.

Small Delights

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1489 acs

The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.

– Natalie Angier

It’s a big world out there, and sometimes overwhelming. Serenity can be found in tiny treasures. Spend time looking closely at the form of a flower, the lacy veins of a leaf, the tiny grains of sand, and feel the wider world melting away.

 Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.

– Liz Vassey

Regular readers of the Wild Edge may notice that I am drawn to small subjects: dragonflies, snails, lizards, flowers, seeds. While I enjoy landscape photography, it usually isn’t long before I’m isolating part of a scene, or zooming in close on some little detail.

So it was inevitable; I recently purchased a macro lens. For the uninitiated, macro lenses take extreme close-up photos, often of very small subjects. I took it for a walk along the bay beach at Corson’s Inlet State Park, at the southern tip of Ocean City.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1466 acsNow I will readily admit I violated the First Law of Macro Photography: I didn’t use a tripod. This was just a trial run, and I didn’t expect anything of the session. To my surprise, a few photos seemed worthy of sharing here. If only to inspire you with the beauty to be found if you take a really close look at the small details of Nature around you.

Notice not just the flowers, but the wasp. Not just the wasp, but the grains of pollen on the wasp. Pollen hitching a ride on flying insects is one way plants reproduce.

 Details create the big picture.

– Sanford I. Weill

140918_OC Corsons Inlet Crabs_1638 aA tiny Ghost Crab stares down a leaf. His mottled coloration camouflages him against the sand. We’ll meet his kind again soon.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1507acsHairs for catching pollen. Spikes for – what? Protection against being eaten?

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1553 acsAnother seed pod sports the punk-rock spiky look.

 To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.

– William Blake

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1568 aGrains of sand on a clam shell. Sand is nothing less than teeny-tiny rocks and minerals, many grains as translucent as glass.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1599 acsSand and shell on an autumn leaf. The lacy veins carry vital materials in and out of the leaf, including chlorophyll, a green pigment critical to the energy production of photosynthesis. When chlorophyll production ceases in fall, the green fades away and the red and yellow pigments already present in the leaf are revealed.

 I still get wildly enthusiastic about little things… I play with leaves. I skip down the street and run against the wind.

– Leo Buscaglia

 140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1605 acsA closer look at a crab leg, dressed in the colors of a sunset.

140918_OC Corsons Inlet_1488 acs 2When it all feels too much, take  time for a walk, and lose yourself in the tiny details of life at the wild edge.

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

– Aristotle