Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Devil's Steps and the Eye of the Needle

The Devil's Steps Trail

After our visit to the site where the Sweet Pinesap grew, my friend Dr. Matt Klooster had to get back to his family, so he drove me off back to the Hemlock Lodge. It was a bit late for lunch at this point, but I had the rest of the afternoon ahead, so I went back out to explore more of the Natural Bridge park trails. The most challenging trail led back up the ridge to a place called the Devil's Steps on the left, flanked by the Eye of the Needle on the right.

The Eye of the Needle

Although it had stopped raining during the night, as I climbed up the hill I noticed there was a good deal of run-off filtering down through the sheer limestone cliffs, making virtual waterfalls in some places. I reached the place where the trail forked and saw there were many steps going up either side. Upon closer examination, I decided it would be smarter to ascend up the Devil's Steps-- harder work, but since the trail seemed wetter, footing would be easier going up hill. Once on the ridge, I could walk around and descend from the Eye of the Needle, which seemed to have less run-off.

Going up the Devil's Steps
Looking down

It was hard work getting up all those steps, but the spectacular views and the pockmarked cliffsides were more than enough reward. I can't imagine what it must take to maintain a trail like this... There were quite a lot of folks on the trail, thought the trail was wide enough only to allow passage single file. I gave priority to those coming down, especially some who had young children with them.

Hikers descending the Devil's Steps

Last stage of the Devil's Steps

I held my breath as I saw this young couple going down those slick rock steps carrying their toddler...
They made it in one piece, whew! Then it was my turn to start up.  Looking down this chute from the top was incredible.

Looking down

Once on the ridge it was easy going. There was more Trailing Arbutus growing on the rocky ledges among the rhododendrons. The Eye of the Needle could not be seen while standing on the ridge, only the steps leading down showed the way.

Trailing Arbutus among Rhododendrons

Coming down from the Eye of the Needle

Eye of the Needle steps

After the Devil's Steps, these steps seemed tame by comparison, and I was glad these were much drier. I was all tuckered out by the time I got back to the lodge in the late afternoon, but happy to have accomplished my purpose. I only hoped my photos of the Sweet Pinesap had turned out well enough to be usable for my paintings.

Eye of the Needle steps

This would be my last hike here, as I would be leaving early tomorrow morning for the seven and a half hour drive back home. I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and to have hiked such a beautiful site as Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky was an extra bonus. I hope to return some day, perhaps when the Rhododendron maximum is is bloom.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Finding the Fragrant Pinesap

Fragrant Pineseap (Monotropsis odorata).

I texted my on-line friend, Dr. Matthew Klooster, on Saturday morning to arrange the time we would meet, since Natural Bridge State Park was about an hour's drive from his home. He expected to arrive sometime around 10 AM and I agreed to wait for him in the lobby of the Lodge.

He was running a bit late, but since there weren't many guests at the lodge, we identified each other right away even though it was our first face-to-face meeting. He was a nice looking young man, sporting a fashionably trim beard and we chatted easily at the lodge for a short while before setting out to find the Fragrant Pinesap plants.

Dr. Matt explained that the site was in the Daniel Boone National Forest, about a ten minute drive from the lodge. He drove back towards the main road, but from there I couldn't tell the direction where we headed, nor what turns we made to get to the site. We reached the area and there were a lot of cars parked along the gravel road--apparently this is a popular hiking area, and despite the cloudy, chilly weather, there were lots of hikers here today. We had to circle around to find a suitable place to pull off and park his SUV.

We walked for a few minutes along a trail and as we were passing by a few scrubby young pine trees he looked into the underbrush and exclaimed "Here's some!" I looked but saw nothing there. He walked further into the woods behind some bushes and said, "Here's more, there's lots of them right here."

Dr. Matt Klooster photographing the Fragrant Pinesap

I leaned down close to the ground and he pointed to these tiny caps peeking out from the leaf litter--one could barely tell they were plants, much less flowers. I could have walked right on top of them and never known I was upon them! I got down on my knees to see better and started taking photos.

I marveled at how Matt had been able to spot these tiny flowers and he told me it had taken him some time to learn to see them, but after a number of years studying them for his dissertation, he had it down perfectly. Interestingly, the plants here seemed to prefer growing under young pine trees, rather than the more mature forest I would have expected. I wonder what species of mycorrhizal fungi they associate with?

Fragrant Pinesap

I had a difficult time with my camera's automatic focus--the leaf litter competed with the inconspicuous flowers so well it couldn't decide where to focus. Fortunately I had my cell phone with me and Matt suggested I try using that. The phone's camera did the trick--it was much easier to zoom in and get exactly what I needed. I shot lots of different individuals, more than enough for my illustrations, in just this one small patch.

The range of color variation from plant to plant is considerable, some of the stems were a deep magenta-purple, with others a much more subdued reddish brown or nearly black. There wasn't much fragrance today, but if you got your nose down very close, a faint aroma of camphor, or maybe clove, could be detected. I figured this had to be due to the cold, since I've heard that many people locate the plant by scent before they can see it.

With such tiny flowers, I wondered what insect pollinated them. Presumably the scent attracted the pollinator. Matt explained that the flowers were buzz-pollinated by bumblebees. Buzz-pollination is accomplished by the bee beating its wings at a certain frequency that causes the pollen to be released from the pollen sacs. How exactly does the bee know to do this is a mystery worth pondering...

After this we walked a bit farther down the trail, where Matt pointed out some crested iris starting to open, and a few other spring flowers. The orange color of the fruiting bodies of  some lichens again caught my eye.

Orange-fruited lichen

These looked very like the Pink Bubblegum lichen I'd seen on Laurel Ridge the day before, but bright orange in color. It was growing alongside some Trailing Arbutus, just as on the ridge.

My friend Matt had to get back to his family soon, so shortly after this, we walked back to his car and he dropped me off at Hemlock Lodge. A brief, but amazing encounter with a fascinating gentleman and botanical subject! I had more than enough material to keep me busy painting for a good long time.

I started the painting several months later, recently. Here's a photo of my painting in progress (not very well-lit).

Monotropsis watercolor in progress.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Rock Garden Trail

The Red River by the Hemlock Lodge.

It poured again during lunch, and I was wondering if I'd have to spend the rest of the afternoon in my room, but fortunately, the rain stopped around 2 PM. I walked down the hundred or more steps to the river to explore the closed swimming pool area surroundings. There was a trail leading to the rental cottages on the other side, and a few spring flowers such as Rue Anemone, wild Phlox and a lovely wild violet with spurs that I'd never seen before.

Red River cottages
Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata)

It seemed the rain would hold off for a while, so I went back up the hill and decided to explore a new trail. Going back to the original trail, several other trails struck off to the right. After crossing a bridge over a small creek, the Rock Garden trail went off to the right, winding up around the hill behind Hemlock Lodge. That seemed like a promising trail for wildflowers...

The Rock Garden Trail

Just another forest trail lined with large Rhododendrons at first, after a while huge, moss-covered boulders began to show up along the path. As the terrain changed, plants grew more profusely at the base of the trees and boulders: a number of familiar  species such as Hepatica and Trillium, club mosses, and Star chickweed along with unfamiliar ones to me. Just at I reached this point, it started to drizzle again, hard enough to make everything soggy. I was just at about the point of no return, should I go on or not? Remembering my problems at Glacier last year, I'd just have to try to keep my camera dry. I slipped the camera inside my parka and hoped taking it out only now and then for photos would do the trick.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acultiloba)
Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)
Trillium (Trillium erectum or sulcatum?)

I had hoped to see the rare Nodding Trillium which is found in the park, and thought the ones pictured above might be some, but the Nodding Trillium is white and the flower of this one was already coloring deep red, so it may be the Wake Robin (Trillium erectum) or perhaps the Southern red Trillium (Trillium sulcatum)--beautiful in any case.

A clump of Club mosses
Close up: is its Lycopodium annotinum?

Farther on there were a number of club mosses--Ground Cedar and the one above, one new to me, and even some walking ferns. Even the tree lichens were blooming--this trail certainly lived up to its name!

Walking Fern (Asplenium rhyzophillum)
Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Trillium
Fruiting bodies of tree lichens.

After this culmination the vegetation on the trail gradually diminished to a more usual forest as the trail began to circle back towards the natural bridge, approaching it from the other side. I passed the chair lift that I'd seen from Laurel Ridge Trail in the morning, which originated on this side of the mountain.

Steps leading back to the Natural Bridge

The rain stopped again, and the sun actually broke through the clouds to cast its bright rays on the rock ledges. More sets of steep steps were carved into the rock, making it a strenuous climb. After passing a number of rock overhangs, I eventually reached the saddle under the natural bridge and started back down on the original trail towards the lodge. It was getting on towards evening now, and this side of the mountain was in shadow.

The original trail

Park sign

Tired of the food at Hemlock Lodge, I went out to Miguels' Pizza for dinner--it was just down the road and jam-packed (the pizza was evidently good). There were a number of picnic tables outside, but it was getting chilly and I was lucky to find a seat inside--very lucky as it turned out! It was a long wait to get my pizza, and it had started to pour again. Many outdoor diners had no choice but to get soaked or take refuge in their vehicles, while I was able to enjoy my dinner in crowded comfort.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Natural Bridge State Park

The Red River at Hemlock Lodge.

It had rained overnight, and when I got up next morning the mist was heavy over the hills. Upon a closer look, the mist was actually a drizzle. I had breakfast in the dining room while watching the birds at large feeders near the windows. There were a lot of finches, cardinals, some tufted titmice, a downy woodpecker and a brown creeper, and the squirrels' antics raiding the feeders and fighting each other off were very amusing.

It stopped raining after breakfast and looked to be clearing up so I got my gear ready for a hike. There were two trails going up, each about 3/4 of a mile long, and I stopped by the Wildlife Center to ask which was better. I chatted with the ranger, and he explained that the second trail had over a hundred steps and was much better for coming back downhill--the first trail was the original one, in use since the early days of this natural attraction, and a bit easier. I commented that I regretted forgetting my binoculars since there were so many lovely birds around, and he was kind enough to loan me a spare pair to use during my stay.

Partridge Berry by the trail

I took the ranger's advice and followed the original trail. The trees had not leafed out yet, but the forest floor displayed some early wildflowers, fungi, mosses, and ferns. It took a bit a climbing before the sandstone formation of the natural bridge could be seen.

Natural Bridge
Under the bridge.

The trail getting up to the top of the natural bridge led under the arch and a set of steps at the back along a very narrow place between rock walls. The sides of my pack scraped the rock walls--I imagine most grown men would have to turn sideways to get their shoulders through this stretch and as for the obese... well, I don't think so.

Steps up to the top.

The trail up.

Once at the top, the view was fantastic. There were signs posted to stay away from the edges--at the Wildlife center the literature said an average of eight people a year were killed or maimed from falls off the cliffs--yet many people disregarded the warning and sat in precarious perches at the edge of the precipice. I walked the length of the bridge and continued on the Laurel Ridge Trail to the end of the upper ledge, a place called Lover's Leap.

Top of Natural Bridge

View from Laurel Ridge Trail

There were a few plants blooming here: some variety of wild cherry (Prunus serotina or P. avium?) and Trailing Arbutus (Epigaia repens), but the most interesting plants I saw were the fruiting bodies of the lichens growing on the rocks--light pink in color, I'd never seen these in bloom before. My internet research said this is a Cumberland rock shield lichen or pink bubblegum lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum), which makes sense, these mountains are part of the Cumberland plateau.

Wild cherry blossoms

Trailing arbutus (Epigaia repens)

Lichen with pink fruiting bodies (bubblegum lichen?)

After reaching Lover's Leap I walked back to the bridge and started down the Balanced Rock trail. The mountain sides were covered with enormous, tree-sized Rhododendrons, (Rhododendrum maximum, I presume) which I'd love to see when in bloom. The wooden steps leading down were very artistically laid out, but there were so many of them it was a good thing I was headed down rather than up.

Trail down from Natural Bridge
Balanced Rock Trail

Balanced Rock

I was back at the lodge in time for lunch. It started to pour again while I was in the dining room, and it looked like it might continue for the rest of the afternoon. I could only hope that it might yet clear up long enough to do another hike in the afternoon.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Stalking the Fragrant Pinesap

Fragrant Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

For a number of years I'd been wanting to find some Fragrant Pinesap (Montropsis odorata) to photograph and paint. When I first read about it I was intrigued by this elusive member of the fascinating Monotropa family: lacking chlorophyll like the rest of this family, it bloomed in the spring and fall but only the spring blossoms were fragrant. The fragrance was described as spicy, resembling cloves, allspice or cinnamon. The flower is so inconspicuous, that the sources said it was common to first detect it by scent. It grew in native forests under pine trees, where it presumably found the mycorrhizal fungi necessary to sustain itself.

Living in Maryland at the time, I looked for it in Calvert County, the only place in the state where it was listed, but despite many hikes in the area, I was never able to find it anywhere. When I moved to Virginia I asked some of the folks from the Virginia Native Plant Society if they'd ever found it in this area. One gentleman thought he'd photographed one flowering stem in the fall during a hike, and shared the location of his find.

Herb and I set out to try to find it one spring, but despite spending hours at the site, we didn't see a thing. I figured either we were too late in year (it was mid to late April), or the dry spring had not been propitious for growth that year. I put it on the back burner and got involved in other pursuits.

A couple of years later, through an incredible set of coincidences(?), I was contacted by a gentleman who wished to buy a watercolor of a related plant, Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), which I'd painted many years earlier. When I asked why this particular painting interested him, he told me he was a botanist and had written his dissertation on this family of plants. We corresponded by email and I asked him what he knew about Fragrant Pinesap, if he knew of any locations where it could be found? He was kind enough to share several of the research articles he had published.

Among the fascinating things Matt's articles revealed, was that although the flowering stems of Monotropsis odorata emerged in the fall (as with other members of the Monotropa family, the only part of the plant that grows above ground is the flowering stem), the flowers remained unopened throughout the winter, protected by bracts that became papery and blended perfectly with the litter on the forest floor, making them very difficult to spot. Then in early spring, the flowers finally opened, emitting their fragrance. That would account for why there was no scent in the fall--the flowers had not opened.

Matt lived in Kentucky, and the site where he'd found the plants was in the Daniel Boone National Forest about an hour away from his home. We made plans to meet the following spring so he could show me the plants. Unfortunately, the following spring I had all sorts of dental troubles and was not able to travel. I would wait another year before my wish could be fulfilled.

Finally, early this year I contacted Matt and considering the warm winter weather, he estimated that the plants would likely bloom towards the end of March. I made plans to spend a long weekend at Natural Bridge State Park in KY so that I could make the seven and a half hour drive there and back and be able to spend a couple of full days exploring the area.

Hemlock Lodge at Natural Bridge State Park

I started out driving on a Thursday morning, drove through a part of WV that Herb and I had seen a couple of summers ago when we visited Dolly Sods, really beautiful back country roads. My route took me past Seneca Rocks and then up a steep mountain road through Elkins towards the interstate. I followed I-79 south to Charleston and then turned west onto I-64, arriving at Hemlock Lodge around 6 PM. By the time I'd checked in and got settled, it was getting dark, so there was nothing to do but have dinner and relax. There would be plenty of time to explore the place tomorrow, since Matt had agreed we'd meet on Saturday.