Ah yes, old forest, thank you for the reminder – we are in bear country.
Black bear used to inhabit most of North America, but, like all too many animals, habitat loss has significantly reduced the species range. So, here in a mixed forest with plentiful snags, bear find a safe haven. Bear are interesting mammals. They’re omnivores who enjoy berries and nuts. Surprising to most folks, pulpy mountain fruit and nuts from the ground, bushes, and trees comprise most of a bear’s diet. Rotting dead animals and insects provide bear with an important source of protein, but the plants truly feed the majestic mammal.
Bear are rather active in the spring, but we’re still in mid-March, so I find no need to alert my family. I’m not overly concerned of a run-in with bear, anyway. The animal still scares easily. Besides, they’d prefer to be left alone in the woods – smart beasts. The most dangerous animal in Appalachia is, by far, the Homo sapiens. In the woodland, bear claim dens in hollow stumps of old trees, or often in the cavities of snags. These hollowed woods offer a view into a peculiar and interesting behavior of the Appalachian bear. They prefer to be high above the ground in standing trees. Most folks scan the understory for these impressive beasts, best to eyeball the sky, too. I’ll be looking, but I expect no evidence of bear activity out here today.
An even larger mammal, however, occupies the high-country woodlands these days. Appalachian elk are growing in numbers across the Blue Ridge. These populations declined sharply during European settlement of the mountains during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the later Industrial Revolution almost ensured their extirpation. Today, thankfully, their numbers are growing due to conservation efforts, reintroduction programs, and preserved, protected, wildlands. This time of year, the large deer species is rather active during the day and male elk shed their antlers. Autumn is mating season in the grasslands for Appalachian elk. Late in the year, male testosterone rises sharply, and their antlers grow large to attract mates. Here in March, on the other hand, testosterone levels are at their lowest and the bone connected to the base of the antler deteriorates. The elk wander into forested habitats where their mantle eventually falls off. Imagine the relief of not walking around with all that weight on your mind. Unfortunately, we won’t be lucky enough to see one of these creatures today.
We’re about two miles or so into our long bike ride and come upon a small group of fellow travelers who’ve paused along the trail. They strap their helmets back on and remount their bikes as we arrive. I notice a pull off behind them with a trail heading through the trees. When we dismount, we exchange some cordial “hellos” and “goodbyes.” They continue down the trail while we pause.
“Boy,” Eli sighs, “I sure am tired. Time for a break!”
“Okay!” Katie chirps brightly. “Let’s have a look see what’s up there.” She points her finger towards the social trail and we oblige.
After only a few steps through a droopy rhododendron thicket, we find ourselves standing on a wide-open mountain grassland. The classic rolling hills of Appalachia are exposed, displaying a great view of rural farmland off in the distance. All around, grey, puffed clouds wisp across our view. Their shapes mimic the steep ridges of the mountains themselves. Instinctively, the boy opens his arms and runs through the tall green and copper colored field of swaying grass. I smile.
I have deep, lasting memories of running through fields from my childhood. There’s something so inviting about cool wind, crinkly dancing blades, and the old dry flowers that disperse seeds as a child passes by. I remember feeling as if I could run forever, as if all of life’s energy was no longer bottled up and restricted by some unknown force. With every pulse, every step, I felt as if I could burn, burn, burn, and explode as fire across the land. From his roars and honest laughter, I can tell my son feels the same. The boy bounds with a fearless, howling joy across an immortal land as rays of brilliant, radiant light slip through a gap in giant clouds and appear to signal we’ve found the Elysian fields.
Katie is smiling as she watches our boy, but she stands with her arms pulled towards her chest and her hands tucked under her chin.
“You cold?” I chirp. “You’re only wearing a thermal with a t-shirt over it.”
“Yup. I was going to get my jacket when we were back at the bike shop, but then you started being a butt-head and making fun of me for liking the cold so much.”
My wife does love the cold. She would, literally, sleep with our bedroom windows open all winter if she could. Katie enjoys the weight of blankets, finds their warmth rather comforting. So, when she wanted a jacket back in town, I cracked a few jokes. Now I reckon it’s time for me to eat my words.
“Here,” I offer, “give me your thermal and you can have my baja. It’s really warm.” After some back and forth, I convince her to trade. We call Eli back and resume the Creeper Trail.
The next section takes us on many more bridges. We soar over rushing river waters and the very forest canopy itself. We travel along gurgling creeks, out of the mature highland forest, and through pastoral valleys of wind kissed farmland, small businesses, local churches, and solitary homesteads. Rural Appalachia is vast and rolling. Though homes and buildings are sparse, the communities are incredibly tightknit – with each other, the countryside, and native flora and fauna. There’s a palpable care for and connection to the land in rural country. Our trail along the beautiful farmland is relaxing and enjoyable, but, soon enough, the wide-open spaces are left behind as the trail takes us back into the forest.
The wood here is noticeably younger at a lower elevation. The deciduous forest is thinner and stands closer to the Earth. The thickets are not as robust or hearty as the highland. No doubt this
early successional forest is rebounding from 20th century logging. Though this system is rebounding, the woods appear healthy and vibrant. Birds call and echo across the woods. We see numerous feathered friends hop, skip, and flutter from perch to perch in search of seeds, fruit, or unlucky insects.
Southern Appalachia is especially important for warbler species. Throughout the southeast, migrating warblers nest, breed, and raise their young. In a recovering forest like this one, chestnut sided warblers, a species at risk of extinction, do particularly well. In the surrounding leafy, second growth woods, these small birds, with yellow feathered skulls, black and white eye patches, white under belly, and streaked black and yellow wings, hop about the sapling and low-lying thickets. Recovering areas are important, because the ever-present loss of habitat, and the hardships of a changing climate, are leading to declines in breeding success rates for all warbler species – including the charismatic chestnut that calls forest stands like this home. As we travel, I can almost hear the bird sing, emphatically, pleased, pleased, pleased to meet cha!
We find ourselves along a beautiful stretch of trail, right next to the roaring Whitetop Laurel Creek that has provided a crisp and welcome ambiance throughout our journey. In the mixed forest, the rhododendron appear more awake, healthy hemlock shades the stream, and light starts to brighten our day. The grey, billowed clouds have all broken. Now, white clouds lightly decorate our view as a blue sky pierces the heavens. Mosses shower the understory in a breathtaking green, sunlight splashes and flickers across the stream, and spring’s warm transition is welcome on my skin. In all this beauty, we bump into a serious problem.
As noted, the Creeper Trail is a steady downhill, for seventeen miles, back to the bike shop. Thing is, this steady downhill is very little work for adults. Our weight and gravity do most of the hard work for us. For Eli, though, hovering around forty pounds, this relatively stable bit of trail along the creek requires a tremendous amount of labor. We’ve taken numerous breaks, but we ride now. Suddenly, I hear a loud skid of gravel. I pull my gaze from the water. Eli is struggling to hold his handlebars. They violently rock back and forth. With an incredible stroke of bad luck, he rolls right over a stray stick that catches his back tire. In a flash, he and his bike pop into the air and crash in a mean, sliding crunch, streamside.
“Ow! Ah!” He yells. I dismount immediately and wrap my hands under his arms to pick him up. Unfortunately, his knee catches the bike seat and a whole new rage of screams flee from the child.
“I can’t do it! I just can’t!” He breathes heavy and sighs. Tears roll down his cheeks as he wipes them forcefully away.
“Come here, Eli, come here.” Katie speaks softly and calmly as she approaches him. His momma sits down next to him and pulls him onto her lap.
“You’re doing such a great job on your pedal bike.” Her voice is easy and reassuring. “I am so proud of you. Not many five-year-olds can say they biked down a mountain, across the woods, along a loud and roaring river, and especially not so fast!’
Katie amplifies her voice with each phrase. I smile as they talk. She is so good at calming him down and building him up. After a good break, and lots of drinking water, the boy silently stands, enlarges his chest, broadens his shoulders, straps on his helmet, and remounts his bike. He looks at me as a wry, but sure, smile spreads across his face. He nods his head and carries onward.
We pass small islands, and, among wide meanders in the stream current, I see a couple of gentlemen fishing. Just behind the pair lies a large dam constructed of wooded debris. The largest rodent species in North America is showing off an impressive display of labor along this section of trail. The semi-aquatic mammal I speak of is, of course, the beaver.
Beavers spend most of their time in streams just like this one. The mammal is very well adapted to river life. Their webbed feet make beavers incredible swimmers; dense fur insulates them from the cold water; their ears and nose close when underwater; and their broad, flat tail enables swimming and dam building. My favorite little factoid about beavers is that they’re monogamous and mate for life. These social, nocturnal animals take family life very seriously. Both parents and older siblings take care of newborn family members until, of course, the kits are old enough to venture out and start a family of their own.
Beavers are incredibly important ecologically. We conservation types call beavers a keystone species – one whose population may be small, but whose presence greatly effects other wildlife populations. Beaver dams alter the flow of streams, creating areas where water stands are lower and warmer and pools of water are deeper and cooler. This is important for migrating fish in need of a place to rest. Additionally, this resting pool affords freshwater mussels a chance to spread their young to the gills of a host fish for transport. Beaver dams also filter silt from water, increasing the habitat purity for all aquatic flora and fauna. These mounds of sticks, branches, and small logs help control flooding in a habitat. The beaver dam here is large and impressive, obviously alters the flow of water, and creates a visible array of microhabitats.
We are well on our way to finishing our ride, but Eli is rather tired. I’m very proud of my son, and his wild, loving, humorous approach to life is really something to admire. Birds sing and the river joins their melody while the three of us sit and rest along the stream bank. As we break, I admire the beaver dam until the boy lets me know he’d like me to take him fishing sometime. I look at him and see his gaze settle on the two fishermen. I’ll, have to oblige the kiddo’s request. Besides, fishing will be a new activity – I don’t believe I’ve cast a freshwater line since high school.
I reckon the gentlemen here are after trout – or, at least, I like to think they are. I love a good trout, especially one cooked fireside in a cast iron pan loaded with butter, garlic, salt, pepper, and plenty of smoke. Thanks to the beaver, and all of its purification work, this is great habitat for the Southern Appalachian brook trout. The fish is gorgeous, speckled like small, olive-green river rocks. Their scales shine like the sun bouncing off ripples of water. Like the beaver, these trout have found a home here and are dependent on densely forested systems with abundant rainfall, mild temperatures, and cool groundwater. Clear, cold water is crucial for spawning success. Mountain waters, shaded by hemlock, also allow insect species to grow their populations – a very important food source for brook trout.
“I have an idea.” Katie has a smile on her freckled face. “Stand up for a second, Eli.”
The boy, with red cheeks, shrugs and slowly rises to his feet. Katie reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone. Eli and I watch curiously while her fingertips slide across the smooth surface. Her idea perks up our ears. She’s started the boy’s music mix.
“I want you to know I am so, so proud of you. You have biked over twelve miles down a mountain! I bet this music will fire you up and get you the rest of the way to Damascus.” Katie talks cheerfully as Eli’s expression brightens.
“I’ll tell you what,” I add, “when we get done, we’ll stop and get a giant milkshake!” Eli’s well-known wry, but proud, smile creeps back on his face.
The boy owns a mix I am rather proud of. He has a wide range of musical interests. On this mix, however, he’ll coast the four or so miles left with tunes from Black Sabbath, Tool, Led Zeppelin, Red Bone, Cheap Trick, The Americans, David Bowie, and more. Momma’s plan works, he’s in the zone and pedaling well. As we approach the small mountain town, two vines grow abundantly as the trail takes us closer to a state road.
One vine is woody and deciduous – the native Virginia Creeper Vine. This vine grows and climbs with disked tendrils that hold fast to wooded trees or bare rock. The leaves have five, coarse, toothed leaflets with a pointed tip. Small, light green flowers will bloom in clusters soon enough as the mountains welcome spring. The vine grows quickly, dependent on cool, wet climates for survival.
As we ease ever closer to town, with Black Sabbath’s metal riffs from “Iron Man” pumping the boy along, we pass homes along the Virginia Creeper Trail as the pathway brings us within eyesight of the state highway. Here, another creeping, climbing vine competes with the native creeper for habitat space. This vine, however, is a non-native species – and the invasive is blanketing the South. I speak, of course, of kudzu.
Kudzu is native to southeast Asia and was first brought to the United States, deliberately, in the late 1800s. Folks enjoyed the large leaves, sturdy vines, and admittedly lovely white, fragrant blooms. Then, beginning in the 1930s, for twenty years the United States government promoted the plant as a means of erosion control on the moonscapes left behind from strip mines, logging, and industrialization across Appalachia. Kudzu grows with vigor. The plant’s stems root on contact with damp soil. The invasive can grow at a rate of one foot per day. Mature vines reach about one-hundred feet in length. Quick growth, coupled with the absence of natural competition, allows kudzu to easily out-compete native species for habitat.
Appalachian ecosystems are resilient, though. Across the mountain highlands, and mixed lowlands, the more biologically diverse a habitat – in terms of species richness, number of species, and genetic diversity – the more resistant ecosystems are to invaders. Kudzu is rather common in human dominated landscapes, and certainly encroaches on wilderness, but protected lands, those protected from human perturbation, have largely resisted the invader. Natural systems and their processes are interdependent on, and interconnected with, one another.
These natural processes and resulting resiliency are on full display today as we travel Appalachian mountain country, rural farmland, and the small mountain town that hosts us on a trip cut short. As our region transitions to spring, the infant colors of life, the easy, virgin green of waking plants, the vapor and mist all around, the bright sun, remind all who care to notice the need for stewardship on our living planet. Land, sky, river, rock, the living communities, are proof that life both creates and destroys – life terraforms the planet.
As we ride an old rail system utilized for industrial logging, a welcome sight appears – Sundog bike shop! We’ve made it!
“Yeah!” I call to Eli. “There’s the bike shop, dude! You did it!”
Our boy is exhausted, but, when he sees the store he speeds up and races to the finish line. As we return our rental equipment, an employee tells us of an ice cream shop down the road – we’ll be stopping for a frozen treat.
As I drive back to Knoxville, zoning out to my music, Katie silently reads a book, and Eli naps in his car seat with a belly full of French fries and a giant vanilla milkshake, of course. So, I listen to my music and recall the old growth forest at the start of our journey. The forest is covered and bearded in lichen and this symbiotic relationship is powerful enough to change rock formations. Composed of fungus and algae, lichen mechanically breaks down rock by exploiting grooves and cracks to grow. The fungal film chemically alters rock as well by secreting powerful acids into the environment. These acids externally digest and then absorb surrounding nutrients. After thousands of years these processes, inherent to life, growth, reproduction, and nutrition, break down the rock of mountains to small particles. These small particles are then transported by river systems to the oceans. When these particles travel, they trap water within their chemical structures. As our dynamic planet tectonically moves, these water laden rock fragments are recycled into the Earth. The water within turns to vapor. This vapor heats and helps the mantle melt, thus causing more volcanism at surface. Life creates new land – the very land we all travel on.
I think of the stream we followed. Like all moving bodies of water, our stream, powerful enough to erode majestic gorges into ancient mountains of hard, dense rock, is shaped and molded by the plants who call this country home. As plants grow and mature, their roots dig into the Earth and across rock. Root systems, strong and sturdy, spread and intertwine, which compacts the soil. In return, rivers must dig deeper into the land. The soil of a living system, protected by roots, forces systems of rushing water to meander. Plants build watersheds, plants mold rivers, and rivers cradle human civilization.
Living on a dynamic planet means our home in the cosmos is always changing, always evolving across time and space. The rocks we traveled today, across just seventeen miles, tell the story of a snowball Earth rescued by volcanism, plate tectonics, and the evolution of life. We also witnessed the scars and scratches of humanity on the surface of our planet – evidence of industrial logging, several species with reduced habitat, some struggling to survive an extinction crisis largely molded from human industrial activity.
There is an ecological disturbance we did not see today, however. This phantom interruption of our seemingly settled and peaceful condition is the scariest. Throughout our planet’s long history, shifts in the Earth’s climate have posed incredible threats to the world’s living inhabitants. We humans transform our atmosphere every day, adding carbon and climate warming gases to the environmental system far faster than any recorded natural process. Additionally, we push further and further into the wilderness, thus depleting habitat and ecological resiliency. We see today, in a global biodiversity crisis, in a regional diversity crisis, that these emissions, coupled with habitat loss, threaten species – including our own – with extinction. This is not meant to be a grim tale, though, but rather one that celebrates life and all the biotic labor that molds our living rock.
Life is resilient – as evident from the rebounding forest the warbler calls home, the land the elk roam, the streams where brook trout swim, all communities who have survived industrialism, and from a boy who pedaled long across mountain country with his parents. Earth system history tells the story of a cosmic dance that took billions of years to form our planet, and billions more to allow the chemical conditions necessary for the evolution of life. As a species, one day we will be gone. We have a precious moment together, spinning along on a lonely blue rock in the infinite solitary echo of the cosmos – we are alive in the Elysian fields.
**Featured Image: Whitetop Mountain along the Creeper – Flickr, mightyjoepye