Camping: Last Fling of Fall

One of my last times camping was in a pristine, secluded spot in the Smoky Mountains. We pitched our tent near the creek, and settled in for a quiet weekend in a natural, unspoiled environment, free from the everyday troubles and noises of the “civilized” world.

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The daylight hours of the first day went really well. Good food, some hiking, the traditional wade in the wide, rushing creek. Then, lulled by the crackle of the campfire and the sounds of flowing water and tree frogs, we extinguished the campfire and prepared for sleep.

Around that time, two men in a beaten-up truck with Florida license plates drove up and started untying the mattress they’d strapped to the roof of their truck. They set up camp on a site near us and were soon joined by several other men. Before long, they all started drinking. Their voices got louder as the night went on.

A park ranger made several visits to our camp area before daylight. By the next morning, the men and their mattress were gone. Needless to say, neighboring campers were very relieved (and sleepy). We stayed over another night or so. It was blissfully quiet.

*         *         *         *         *

Camping was a lot more peaceful this October when we met up with my son and his fiancee at a small campground near Tellico Lake in East Tennessee. Instead of a tent, we slept in a relatively-roomy pop-up camper. Some of our neighbors had pop-ups, but most had small RVs with elaborately decorated “yards” indicating they were semi-permanent residents in all but the coldest winter months.

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As far as we could see, views from the shore were of trees and vegetation. Surprising, since so many of the coves of East Tennessee are ringed by big houses and boat docks.

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A young native dogwood, Cornus florida, provided bold color and screening from neighbors.

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Companions and soon-to-be life partners chill out by the fire.

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A river of Japanese stilt grass or Microstegium  flows through part of the campground. It’s a highly-invasive weed, now rampant through the southeast and beyond. We ignored its presence, focusing instead on the view of the lake, good conversation, and wonderful smells of food cooking on the campfire.

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A huge poison ivy vine enmeshed in the trunk of a cedar tree.

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Our camper had a funky, diner-style vibe after dark.

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A peaceful, quiet campground. Friendly neighbors. No late night carousing.

Lights out!

Birds and Fun and Flora: Ijams Nature Center

With all its wildlife and plant abundance, my own yard feels like a nature sanctuary. It’s always changing, and I just walk outside to get there. But on lush, cool days in May, I’m ready to meet friends and family to experience the outdoors in a different setting. Last week, it was Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg that enticed me; this week,  Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville.

Ijams has changed considerably since  1910, when Harry and Alice Ijams purchased the Center’s original twenty acres for their home place. The couple set out to create a haven for birds and plants, and they just kept on creating and expanding. In the 1960s, the land became a public nature park. Now owned by the City of Knoxville, Ijams is a non-profit park overseen by staff and a board of directors for the purpose of conservation and public education. Over the years, the Center has expanded to 300 acres, including ten miles of walking trails.

Every creature plays a role

Every creature plays a role

One of the first teaching opportunities at Ijams appears on a sign leading to the visitors’ center. The display is about turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and shows that nature is not just about pretty butterflies and songbirds. The cycle of life and death is complex, with each plant and animal playing a part of the process.

Skink sunning outside Ijams Education Center

Skink in the sun

A five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, sits on top of a carved duck close to the roofline of the visitors’ center.

Nature vignette

Nature vignette

You’ll see a bit of this and that at the nature exhibits inside Ijams. Glad I didn’t see a snake this big outside, although I appreciate its purpose in the scheme of things. The turtle and fish, all slow-motion in the water, were definitely alive.

Ijams gift shop

Ijams gift shop

The gift shop has nature-themed gifts and regional crafts for sale. The shop is a source of revenue for Ijams, plus a dispenser of snacks and souvenirs for little visitors. Okay … for big ones too.

Mourning dove on the nest

Mourning dove on the nest

A mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, kept a sharp eye on visitors below. I wish I’d gotten a sharper photo of this appealing little bird.

We had a private visit with a red screech owl just below the dove’s nest. I’m saving that (longer) story for another day.

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Behind the education building, we saw this very fine specimen of native fringetree, also called old man’s beard. I love this tree, Chionanthus virginicus.

Native honeysuckle

Trumpet honeysuckle

Oh, and how could you not swoon when you see the native Lonicera sempervirens, or trumpet honeysuckle? All kinds of pollinators are attracted to this vine. It’s a little hard to find at nurseries, but don’t give up. There is a yellow version of it — nothing like the invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that grows throughout the southeast and beyond.

Mead's quarry

Mead’s quarry

This lake (ducks or geese in the distant background) used to be a quarry where marble was extracted for buildings and monuments. We climbed to the top of the steep, stone cliffs, passing a small country graveyard along the way.

Old graveyard

Old graveyard

I’m always moved by graveyards, especially small, remote ones like this that are on the verge of reverting to wild.

Lichen just off the trail

Lichen just off the trail

One of my goals for this year is to learn more about lichens. We saw these just after a pair of indigo buntings landed in a nearby tree. Such beautiful birds. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted both the photos I took of the buntings before they flew away.

Invasive wisteria

Invasive wisteria

Since there are so many positive examples of nature conservation at Ijams, I’m a bit reluctant to mention how disturbing it was to see so many invasive plants growing rampantly  on the property, especially near the quarry. At first I thought this was kudzu, but it was the Japanese import Wisteria floribundans (abundant flora, for sure).

On my own 3/4ths acre lot, we struggle with English ivy and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegia) so I understand the challenge of invasives. Recent rains have only added to the problem. But the level of wisteria, multiflora rose, poison ivy and other invasives at Ijams seems a call for remediation.  Otherwise, the entire property and surrounding countryside will be compromised.

A child who cares

A child who cares

To end on an upbeat note, I’m including a drawing and poem that was displayed near the administrative offices at Ijams. It’s by a third-grader named Ethan.

My brother’s name is Nick

Pollution makes him sick

He doesn’t like pollution

So I came up with a solution.

 

Pollution is everywhere

It scares the bunnies and hares

Trucks and cars pollute the air

Ride your bicycle because you care.

 

Don’t throw trash in the street

Pick it up and be real neat

Don’t dump chemicals in the river

Some day it might harm your liver.

 

So, go, Ethan, third-grade budding naturalist. And go Ijams, until my return another day.

 

Trails, Trains, and Crawdads

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After a mentally-draining session with blogs and websites, my son and I found reprieve in a late-winter walk along Third Creek greenway in Knoxville. We parked at the Sutherland Avenue entrance and walked down a straight stretch of paving with grass clearings on either side. Groups of fat robins converged at the edge of a thicket of trees and undergrowth. There is good habitat for birds here: cover, water, and (presumably) plenty of food.

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More evidence of birds, in this case woodpeckers. This tree has been foraged repeatedly for grubs and insects.

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We saw bird silhouettes in distant trees, and a grouping of what appeared to be young, native beech trees with their buttery-brown winter foliage.

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The creek meanders alongside the path. The view was pretty from the first vantage point when the sun was out. Unfortunately, the creek had just flooded and there was a good bit of trash and debris on the banks in some areas. The grasses and other plants (too early in the season to know what they were) had been flattened by the rising water.

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The course of the stream was changed to a curving one by a process called stream re-meandering. According to this sign, the stream was dredged and straightened several decades ago because of erosion, sediment, and other problems associated with nearby development.  Some people who grew up in this area say the stream was always straight. I don’t know. Unfortunately, there are still issues with the creek, as this sign will attest:

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We saw a lot of bamboo, privet, and other invasive plants along this section of the greenway. It’s hard to keep invasives under control in areas such as utility right-of-ways, greenways, shoulders of highways, and other disturbed areas. At my own house, the creeks have eroded, and privet has seeded itself — with the help of birds — along the steep banks.

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A happy surprise — which brought back many childhood memories – was the discovery of crawfish holes in the moist areas near the beginning of the trail. According to the sign we saw later, the holes were made by Appalachian brook crayfish (also called crawfish and crawdads). I think these were the very ones that kept making tunnels in the dam of my dad’s pond in North Carolina. He spent many an hour plugging up crawfish holes.

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The trail leads to an area of thick vegetation near a railroad viaduct. The trestle is supported by thick columns, and the creek flows under some of them near the point where the greenway trail splits.

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On the tracks above the greenway, a train was carrying a load of fresh lumber. The late afternoon light was reflected on the concrete below the tracks. I was so absorbed in the sound of the sparkling creek, cascading over the rocks near the viaduct, that I forgot to get pictures of people running, riding bikes, and walking.

This might have been my favorite part of the trail. I love trains — the mystery and romance of them and the evocative sound of their horns from a distance. With the train, added to the winter sunshine and rushing creek, it was one of the best-ever escapes from a computer.

Forget-Me-Not

Blue Hill

Years ago, an elderly client, Margaret, sent me home with starts of Myosotis sylvatica or forget-me-not. I planted them here-and-there and, right away, forgot my forget-me-nots! Last spring they appeared en masse — a soothing swath of blue under the now-much-larger ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud. This year, only a quarter of the forget-me-nots appeared.

I had forgotten the patch of Aegopodium or goutweed at the top of the hill. Last year, being busy (or lazy), I let some of  the goutweed stay. I knew its aggressive tendencies, but hoped that it would help stabilize the soil until I decided on something more appropriate. It did, after all, have nice yellow flowers and variegated leaves and I figured I could tolerate it for a while. Well, you guessed it — the “patch” took over the bank, spreading rapidly down the hill throughout late fall and winter. This spring, the delicate Myosotis sprouts could not compete.

Now, another garden task presents itself: remove the goutweed, then plant something that is desirable, deer-resistant, and able to play fair with forget-me-nots. (Also, remind myself that no good can come from ignoring or “forgetting” invasive plants)!

Little Tree Under Siege

These two photos show that even the tiniest Canadian hemlock is vulnerable to attack by the non-native insect, wooly adelgid. This little tree is just over a foot tall. It’s already covered by the same nasty pest that destroyed the stately (and considerably larger) hemlock that thrived for many decades at my North Carolina homeplace. Every morning, I looked out through the limbs of that tree from the window of the bedroom my sister and I shared. I think about those days –and that hemlock– nearly every time I go home.