Craggy Flats - full write-up

Project documenting the old growth and special forests along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shennandoah National Park in Virginia and North Carolina.

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Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by dbhguru » Mon Aug 08, 2011 1:29 pm

Blue Ridge Parkway Adventures-Part I.
Craggy Flats Bald
By Bob Leverett

Introduction

As part of the planned itinerary, Monica and I saved the Blue Ridge Parkway, our shared southern mountain Mecca, as the final leg of our 8,700-mile trek. We were looking for a way to stave off the depression that can accompany the end to a magnificent journey. We also wanted to begin collecting information, in earnest, for our book project, “In Search of the Gnarled and the Majestic – A Guide to the Exceptional Forests and Trees of the Blue Ridge Parkway”. The NPS has granted us a research permit so we can collect data more freely. We’ll share all results with the Parkway staff and give them the say on what shouldn’t go into the book, e.g. information they deem sensitive that could put a resource at risk. What we hope to accomplish with the book is providing a more detailed look at the forests and trees along the Parkway to foster a greater appreciation and sensitivity to our eastern forest legacy.

At present, we’re struggling with details of book organization, prioritizations, and even overall content. We’ve decided that those details will ultimately sort themselves out provided we have enough material. So, we just aimed our Subaru for the southern end of the Parkway, and once there, starting clicking our camera and jotting down notes. By the time we had exited the Parkway at milepost 46, we had made seven major stops: Craggy Flats, Crabtree Falls, Linville Gorge, Smart View, Falling Water Cascades, Peaks of Otter, and Otter Creek. We will present individual descriptions of these six spots in separate reports. We normally include lots of images in our reports, but will hold down the number to keep each document to around a megabyte. We apologize in advance, if the file size is still too great. Please let us know. We will now turn to our first stop, Craggy Flats Bald and Craggy Gardens.

Craggy Flats Bald

Our first significant stop along the Parkway was Craggy Flats Bald north of Asheville. At 5,680 feet, the bald is one of the high summits of the Craggy Mountains, a sister range to the massive Blacks. But, unlike the Blacks, the Craggies are covered in solid deciduous forest, although the peaks are high enough to support Red Spruce and Fraser Fir, the two high altitude species that impart the dark color to the upper elevations of the Blacks. Right now, we don’t know the reason for this, but that will become a research project for our book. Although they stand in the shadows of the hulking Blacks, the Craggy Mountains are still an important range to the peak baggers: they boast one peak over 6,000 feet elevation, Craggy Dome at 6,085.

The Dome is an imposing sight up close or from a distance. From nearby, it is hard to judge its altitude, but from Tomahawk Lake in the town of Black Mountain, the Craggies stand out boldly on the horizon, and the Dome marks a distinct point on the skyline, rising over 3,700 feet above the level of the lake. Will and Heidi Blozan had taken us from their house down to see the small lake. It was mostly about surveying the trees on the way, but for me, the walk provided a fortuitous opportunity to view the Craggies from a distance and to contemplate what it means to be considered a separate range of mountains in what is otherwise a confusing jumble of summits stretching for mile after mile.

First, let’s take a look at the Craggies from the Parkway as we saw them driving up from Asheville. Their pleasing shades of blue reflect the dense covering of hardwoods.
image001.jpg
For folks interested in mountains, their formation, their fauna and flora, their human culture, their highest summits, and their unforgettable vistas, the southern Appalachians provide a plateful. Visitors to the region are confronted by a long list of range and place names, and if serious about their geological understanding, at some point must tackle the task of comprehending what constitutes a separate geological area of uplift as opposed to a local range name. For example, are the Great Craggies geologically distinct from the adjoining and roughly parallel Blacks? Since the respective summits of the Craggies are vegetated quite differently from those of the Blacks, are the two ranges composed of different rock types?

The Parkway runs across one shoulder of Great Craggy Dome on its way to a rendezvous with the Blacks. Passing through Balsam Gap, at around 5,200 feet, one hardly notices that one has passed over the dividing line between the two ranges. We were curious as to what significance we could attach to the passage. Here is a look at the Blacks from the sides of the Craggies. They are two distinct mountain ranges, each with its distinct set of charms.
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For us, the Craggies offers two major hiking trails – a trail to Craggy Pinnacle for a stupendous view, and a trail to the flats where one can catch the best of the Catawba and Carolina rhododendron bloom. From the Pinnacle, visitors can look down into the Big Ivy watershed. It is old growth forest par excellence. I expect more people take the Pinnacle trail to see the combination of view and bloom, because the Pinnacle also offers opportunities to sample the rhododendron spectacle.

However, according to the brochures, the trail to the flats is THE hike to take to see Catawba and Carolina Rhododendron when in full bloom. It is one of the great natural flowering spectacles in the country. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the bloom, which usually is at peak during mid to late June, but we were serendipitously treated to a surprise that for us rivals floral displays. We were to experience a high altitude, stunted old growth yellow birch forest, with trees shaped by wind, ice, and snow in a climate similar to lower to central Quebec.

For people whose passion is avian life, a particular species may be of interest because of showy colors, graceful flight, or an interesting mating ritual. There are many possible reasons to find a species attractive. And so it is with tree lovers. The graceful arching limbs of the American Elm, the stature of the Redwood, the unsurpassed ages of the Bristlecone Pine are understandable draws, but the charms of the old birches we observed on the trail are less obvious, judging by the scant interest they attract. However, these venerable old trees deserve an extra portion of respect. They have fielded the most challenging weather that the Craggies can deliver and have survived. After a walk up the trail a couple hundred feet, the show commences.

It is interesting to determine the ecological niche filled by a species of interest. Yellow Birch is common in the cool New England woods. The species reaches significant proportions in New York’s Adirondacks and in the Great Smokies of Tennessee and North Carolina. The species is intermediate in tolerance of shade and often colonizes rocky areas where it wraps its roots around rocks of various sizes to create tree-rock sculpture that attracts the photographer and painter. Yellow Birch usually shares space with Sugar Maple, American Beech, and Eastern Hemlock. But here we were observing it as king of the mountain. The Yellow Birch was expressing itself, as only it could, in its mountain top competition with the tangles of rhododendron.

The elevation at the start of the trail is a respectable 5,220 feet according to my GPS. On the day we took the hike, the air was humid, but the temperature was not too high, probably around 75 when we started our hike. Once under the dense canopy, the humidity increased even more, but the temperature dropped some, so we stayed sufficiently comfortable as we began to observe the chief attraction. Here is a look at what we encountered fairly early. Monica sits on the trunk of a prostrate birch, still very much alive and growing. The tree is probably between 200 and 300 years old, perhaps older.
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The questions that repeatedly occur are: how old are these trees, and how did they develop such contorted forms? The prostrate trunk shown above is only one of many odd, if not grotesque, forms we observed. I had never seen the like of it before, not even in the Adirondacks. But before answering the two posed questions, let’s look at three more birch images. Remember, all trees shown are very much alive.
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image009.jpg
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And now to the questions, the climate is the answer to the bizarre forms. Wind, ice, and snow break limbs, and the Yellow Birches refuse to give up. Instead they continue to re-sprout. The main trunk often rots, but new roots and branches are constantly growing and replacing decaying parts. As the seasons pass, trees take on progressively more Tolkienesque forms. Some old birches appear to pop straight out of a fairy tale.

In terms of ages, I would guess many to be in the 180 to 250-year range, while others likely make it to between 300 and 400. We have datings elsewhere of Yellow Birches that old, so we know the species can do it. And from personal experience, I propose the above age distribution based on the age-dating Harvard Forest did on the old Yellow Birches on Wachusett Mountain in central Massachusetts. There, an unlikely, dwarfed prostate birch yielded 379 annual rings. Other birches were considerably younger, but still old.

We’ll never know the exact ages of the Craggy Mountains birches, because the trees are hollow inside, and one can not determine the age of the tree by dating limbs (where rot may not exist) and applying the derived ring density to the main trunk. So, for the present, we can only guess, based on a general knowledge of species longevity.

As Monica and I walked up the trail observing more and more contorted forms, we found the forest floor enchanting. In places, lush grasses form a carpet beneath the birches. The openness of the woods allows one to see farther into them and discern more twisted forms. For us, it did not matter that the trees were not tall and cathedral-like. I’m attracted to trees of that form, but the appeal of the birches was in their lack of straightness, in their bizarre shapes. They were pushing the envelope, and I came to think of them as forest enchanters, each harboring a distinct spirit and with a story to tell. Children with undiminished imaginations could find much to enjoy by walking through this enchanting forest of birches.

As a matter of recollection, some years back a lady from Alexandria approached me about partnering with here on a children’s book on old growth forests. She was extremely successful, and I feared she was out of my league. I procrastinated and lost contact and the opportunity. In retrospect, I believe the Craggy Flats Yellow Birch forest would have made a heck of a subject around which to weave children’s tales. I can’t think of a better place - alas, lost opportunities for lack of courage.

At the summit, blackberries, grasses, shrubs, and various wild flowers made the trip very worthwhile. We identified 7 species of trees along the path. Wild flowers included Green Cone Flowers, Wild Bergamot, Oswego Tea (Bee-balm), Phlox, Morning Glory, Fleabane Aster, Early Goldenrod, Heal-all, and Common Yarrow. We would recommend this hike any time just for the flowers and the butterflies.

In the midst of the bald, an enchanting glade of scrub oak, complete with a wooden bench, drew us to its shade. Oh yes, we saw plenty of Mountain Ash. When their berries turn red, another color spectacle will ensue. We also saw views of the summits of the Craggies and the nearby Blacks, but they were not the main attractions; we were mesmerized by the romance of the grassy bald.

We’ll close with two more images. The first shows a tangle of rhododendron at the edge of the bald, and the second provides a final look at the contorted shape of yellow birch. It appears to have outstretched arms signaling or calling to passersby. We leave it to the imagination of the reader.
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NTS,

Attached is the full write-up on Craggy Flats Bald along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Blue Ridge Parkway Adventures-Craggy Flats.doc
(1.06 MiB) Downloaded 116 times
Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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jamesrobertsmith
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by jamesrobertsmith » Mon Aug 08, 2011 7:59 pm

I have never figured out why the Craggies and the Blacks are considered separate ranges. I've hiked them both extensively and I just don't see why they're listed as separate ranges. Yes, I've seen the "J" shaped Black Mountain range on my topos, and the general long ridge of the Craggies, but why they should be considered two ranges when there really is nothing to differentiate them that is visible to my eye. The vegetation seems largely the the same, and the geology, also. Same for elevations. While the Craggies only have one 6K-foot peak, they're very impressive--almost as stunning as the Blacks.

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James Parton
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by James Parton » Mon Aug 08, 2011 11:10 pm

Bob,

I have quite a collection of pictures taken from the Craggies. Here are 10 of them. I also sent you several high-rez ones by email. I just hope your connection is good enough and fast enough to handle the data load. Feel free to use any of them in your book.

I have quite a few pictures taken from the Parkway or trails off the Parkway.
Attachments
Twisted Birch.JPG
The Heath Balds.JPG
Old Birch.JPG
Leaning Tree.JPG
High-Altitude Hawthorn.JPG
Flame Azalea.JPG
Catawba Rhododendronn.JPG
Brilliant Red!.JPG
Birch Forest.JPG
American Mountain Ash.JPG
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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dbhguru
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by dbhguru » Tue Aug 09, 2011 7:04 am

Dang James,

You've got to share more of your photography with us. Your images are outstanding. The mountain ash shot (I presume) is wild. People don't realize just how colorful that displays of the berries can be. Between the rhodies, laurel, azaleas, fruits of the magnolias, mountain ashes, flowering of the tulips, etc. etc., etc., there is always something to get excited about. So often fine shots get so scattered that the collective pictures they paint are lost. Maybe we need to launch a NTS photo contest. There is talent galore among the group. We'd want categories, I'd think. What think you? It might be a way of focusing our talents and organizing the result into a coherent product.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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James Parton
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by James Parton » Tue Aug 09, 2011 9:36 am

Bob,

The Mountain Ash pictures were taken on nearby Craggy Pinnacle, across from the Heath Balds ( or Craggy Flats ). I find something special about the Hawthorns, Mountain Ashes and evergreen Hollies. They are my very favorite trees. And, yes those White Pines score high too.

Mentioning photo contests, OBOD has an Eisteddfod ( An artistic Welsh festival of literature, music and performance. ) that includes photography. I submitted a short poem but did not win or place high. I had intended to place a photo or two in the competition but my mother passed away at that time and pulled my attention away from it.

Maybe eNTS could have an eisteddfod competition? It could be held quarterly or twice a year. It could include things like stories, photography or poems on trees. It could also include videos. All personal stuff, of course. Nothing from the web. It could be fun and bring a creative side to eNTS. Of course, we would have to have judges or have members to vote on the entries.

On the OBOD forum a winner gets a small harp image put at the bottom of his " signature " if he/she wins an event. If eNTS did something like this we would have to find a way to display on our posts or profiles that we have won.

It is just an idea, of course.

Bob, I have a lot of photos on the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you need any from the book, just let me know!
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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Larry Tucei
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by Larry Tucei » Tue Aug 09, 2011 12:03 pm

Bob, What odd looking trees. The photographs are really good. James, Your photos are good also. Larry

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dbhguru
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by dbhguru » Tue Aug 09, 2011 1:44 pm

Larry, James,

James, I vote for your first YB photo as the most bizarre of the series. I wonder who else out in Ents land has examples of YBs behaving strangely.

Bob
Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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James Parton
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by James Parton » Tue Aug 09, 2011 11:24 pm

Bob,

Those Yellow Birches have character don't they? You gave me some of an idea on their age during your report. I had wondered on their age but suspected they were old growth.

I about expect them to move, like the huorns of Fangorn.
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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Josh Kelly
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by Josh Kelly » Thu Aug 11, 2011 9:24 am

JRS,

I agree that the Craggies and Blacks are a single mountain range, though I think they have very distinctive rock types and vegetation. The crest and east side of the Blacks are composed of Metagraywacke, a mica-schist rock that weathers to very acidic soils, in general. The Cane River valley and Craggies are formed of more base-rich Gneiss, and have much more diverse vegetation. Let me know if you ever want to visit some of my secret spots in the Craggies. I love to visit the old-growth oak-forests there in October to hunt for my favorite edible mushroom.

Josh

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James Parton
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Re: Craggy Flats - full write-up

Post by James Parton » Thu Aug 11, 2011 10:55 am

Josh,

Which edible mushroom? Morels? I grew up eating wild mushrooms that my dad harvested from the woods. Along with fresh water fish they are among my favorite foods.
James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids

http://www.druidcircle.org/nod/index.ph ... Itemid=145

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