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Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Trail’

I’ve been thinking about acorns a lot over the past several weeks.  Having tromped around the Southern Appalachians for a couple of decades now, I can’t recall ever having seen as heavy a crop of acorns as there is this year.  On my last two outings with my boys on the A.T., I found myself crunching as many as a dozen with any given step.  I also found myself under constant assault.  At any given spot on the trail, you could bend down and quickly fill both hands with ammunition, and so Will and Andrew gleefully bombarded me for miles (they particularly favored acorns from chestnut oaks—big and glossy and weighty).  I didn’t exactly mind, as this was a mutually beneficial arrangement; their giggling pursuit of a steadily moving target meant that they covered a good bit of distance without dawdling or asking to rest, without any complaining whatsoever.

And so two weekends ago, whilst enduring this onslaught, I found myself thinking about the ecology of oak trees.  I had read somewhere that oak trees only produce big acorn crops every several years as a clever evolutionary adaptation to outwit squirrels, their primary herbivorous predators.  During most years, a light acorn crop serves as a limiting factor on squirrel populations, ensuring that squirrel numbers are low when the next prolific acorn year rolls around.  As a result, much of the eventual bumper crop remains uneaten—ideally, squirrels will carry away and cache acorns like crazy but never get around to eating all of them and thus effectively disperse (and plant) the seed crop.  Pretty clever, no?  Of course, this evolutionary scheme only works if all of the oak trees in a given area of forest are on the same acorn production schedule (no sense producing a meager crop if your tree neighbor floods the market), but there’s no clear understanding as to how oaks end up coordinating their outfits, so to speak.

The most likely explanation, of course, is that all the oaks in a forest will respond to the same climatological trigger.  Well, if Sir Isaac Newton could reach scientific epiphany from being hit on the head with a falling apple, maybe a fusillade of thrown acorns might work the same magic for me.  I suddenly realized, having recently had an oak tree behind my house succumb to thirst and flatten my car, that our current “exceptional” drought might potentially open a lot of holes for sunshine in an otherwise solid forest canopy.  What better time to produce a heavy mast crop than just before a period of heavy tree mortality?  I went from thinking “Wow, what a great autumn to be a black bear” (bears being heavy mast consumers) to having the disquieting notion that the underfoot crunch I’d been enjoying might actually foretell ecological woe.

And then last week I read in the Washington Post that folks up north are also worried about acorns . . . because their trees evidently didn’t produce any this year.  None!  The Post quotes field botanist Rod Simmons, worried that he’s witnessing a climatic event: “Let’s hope it’s not something ghastly going on with the natural world.”  Isn’t that typical of us tree-huggers?  We each see opposite ends of a continuum but suffer from the same gloomy speculation.  Maybe there is no divination to be had from acorns, after all.

Even so, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to and ask questions of our natural surroundings.  Distressingly few people do.

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For the first time since our summer odyssey, the boys and I got away for a quick camping adventure this past weekend.  I’d been trying to make this trip happen for weeks, so I dug my heels in and cavalierly brushed aside Belinda’s misgivings as the mercury plummeted in the days leading up to our departure.  “They won’t freeze,” I said. “The fact that human beings survived in cold climates for thousands of years means that kids must be tougher than we think,” I said.  But yeah, with a low in the mountains for Saturday night expected to be somewhere in the high teens, I was inwardly worried.   Not that we wouldn’t survive the night, necessarily, but that they’d be miserable, that they’d quickly sour on the whole camping concept altogether.

Doubt has a way of manifesting itself as crippling procrastination, and even as late as noon on Saturday, Belinda had to ask “So, are you going or what?”  Bitten by an insistent wind every time I ferried a load out to the car, I’d come back in and get caught up in something on television . . . or log on the computer to see how the Liverpool/Fulham game was getting on . . . or read through my guidebooks for another twenty minutes, vacillating on just where we might go.   Finally, however, the boys kicked us out of the door—having enlisted them as allies in my negotiations with Belinda, I couldn’t say “no” to them now—and so late afternoon found us settling into our campsite in the upper Tallulah River headwaters, in the shadow of Standing Indian and Big Scaly mountains.  I was quickly reminded of a personal epiphany I reached years ago, that inclement weather is never as bad in person as it is when contemplated from a warm, dry place.

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Not as fragile as we think they are.

Simply put, the boys didn’t freeze.  They had a great time.  They learned a number of important winter camping lessons: to eat heartily (food is fuel) and quickly (cold food is not good food), to get up and dance around if your feet or hands start to feel cold (we would have looked mighty silly to someone watching from a saner vantage point), that a Nalgene bottle filled with hot chocolate and tucked inside your jacket works like a personal heater for hours.  I built a good fire (nothing beats a store-bought bundle of firewood and a Duraflame log to start it for speed and ease) that we needed less for warmth than we did for marshmallows.  I’ve written before about how much work it is to be the solo adult while camping with young kids, and I’ll admit that this time it was worse—along with the usual needs to tend to, someone always seemed to need help getting a glove back on or something zipped up—but watching them feel comfortable and confident in conditions that most adults would recoil from made it all worthwhile.  As we lay in our sleeping bags and drifted toward sleep, we chatted happily about trips we’d like to do in the future.

The next morning we found a small cliff festooned with icicles, and the boys had a great time breaking them off and swordfighting with exploding weaponry.  As the day warmed up, we moved downstream to a place where the river cascades through a gauntlet of car-sized boulders, found a nice sunlit slab to eat lunch on, and threw rocks into an emerald pool, trying to imitate the sound of each splash (“thiomp!).  And then even as we began to drive home, the boys decided they weren’t through—”we haven’t climbed a mountain”—so I drove to a place where a short hike on the A.T. took us to a summit of west-facing rock slabs, and we luxuriated in the sun for well over an hour.  In the end we had a weekend worth four or five ordinary weekends, and I come away wondering why we don’t do that more often.  What would we have done at home?  Watch TV?  Spend too much time on the computer?  Mount an expedition to Target to buy paper towels?

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted, but I had to take a break from virtual reality following the election.  And I’m through with talking politics for a while, even though my ClustrMap lit up like fireflies in Cades Cove when I did—thanks and welcome to any new readers still sticking around.  Anyway, back to more familiar terrain for a word or two . . .

So I took the boys to the mountains a couple of Sundays ago for a dayhike to the summit of Tray Mountain on the A.T.  This being the time of year when Atlanta television and radio stations sound the Pavlovian bell of “peak fall color” predictions, the mountains were crowded with Sunday drivers making obligatory visits, and we sat in traffic for a good twenty minutes trying to get through Helen’s faux-Bavarian sprawl on the last day of Oktoberfest.  Had I been thinking more clearly in planning our day, I would have taken us somewhere else.  But there we were.

The hike is an easy one, maybe a little more than a mile from the high point on F.S. 79, and the summit is dramatic enough, an open crest of rock, knuckled like an alligator’s back, affording some nice views in places over the surrounding rhododendron tangles.  We stayed up there for almost two hours doing nothing.  Doing everything.

Will, who had amassed a collection of rocks on the hike up, sat down and pulled out his treasured science book from his backpack to try to identify them.  His 1st grade textbook wasn’t much help, so I got called into service and promptly disappointed him with the information that 1) every single one was some sort of schist and that 2) metamorphic rocks don’t contain fossils (of course, that didn’t stop him from trying to load twenty pounds’ worth into his bookbag for the hike out).  Meanwhile Andrew scrambled around in the rhododendron, bouldered on a little cliff face on the side of the summit block, made a collection of pretty leaves (demanding my personal inspection and approval for each one).  After a while, Will pulled out a little notecard journal to draw the summit and take notes—”Dad, how do you spell metamorphic?”—while Andrew moved on to searching for insects and I tried (and failed) to doze in the sun.  Both boys were disappointed when I said it was time to go.

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Will’s only seen me work in my own naturalist journal a time or two (I’m usually much too busy when the kids are around), so I was surprised (and inordinately pleased) to see him take to it like this.

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Have CamelBak, will bash through rhododendron

There were, unsurprisingly, a lot of people out on a perfect afternoon.  It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that 30 people visited the summit in the time that we were there, in pairs, in foursomes, in entire three generation extended families out hiking around.  But here’s the thing I keep thinking about: no one else stayed there at the summit for more than about ten minutes.  True, a few were hiking through to other destinations, but most turned around and headed back to the car after snapping a few pictures, maybe eating a granola bar.  I suppose I should be grateful, as the place would have been crowded had everyone lingered as long as we did, but the afternoon reminded me how difficult it can be for us adults to kick off frontcountry restlessness.  I guess I’m more at home in the mountains than most, but I can’t claim to reach the total here-and-nowness of my kids, at least not without having been out for a few days at a stretch.  Good for them.

To the other parents of young kids we saw that afternoon, to those we’ll see in the future, slow down and stay awhile.  Let them feel at home, let the mountains feel like home and not just a place to visit.  Bring a book if you have to, or a picnic, but sit still and turn them loose.  And watch them grow.

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