Maybe the mountains imprinted themselves in my dad’s DNA during his childhood in South Korea, and those highland genes are what always draw me to the spectacular sights and sounds of southern Appalachia. While camping in Joyce Kilmer National Forest, I was completely awed by all the life that was around us, and the cool, clear weather during most of our trip allowed us many opportunities to enjoy the incredible array of flora and fauna near our idyllic base camp by Citico Creek.
While the 6-foot tall Hugh was contemplating the taller trees in the forest, those of us closer to the ground had our eyes focused on the plants near our feet. The pipsissewa, or striped wintergreen, had white berry-like buds and were just beginning to bloom. Traditionally, the leaves have been used medicinally for ailments ranging from rheumatism to kidney problems. The plant does have antiseptic properties and is still sometimes used as a flavoring for candy. We had just missed the lady slipper orchids and only saw the spent inflorescence, but we were too early for the rattlesnake plantain orchids. There were a few Indian ghost pipes, which are named for their white, nearly ghostly appearance due to the lack of chlorophyll. The wildflowers were growing amongst the groundcover of partridge berries surrounding the trees.
Around the edges of the base camp were young sassafrass, which attracted black swallowtail butterflies. There were also a few silver spotted skippers. Both of these species, however, were greatly outnumbered by the Appalachian azures that congregated around our site like a gathering of forest fairies.
Our more earth-bound neighbors included a definite tussock moth caterpillar that had yet to earn its wings. On the first day, we had picked up an oil beetle using a stick and managed to avoid the chemical it secretes to cause blisters on menacing predators. Shiva named one of the queen crater snails in our camp “Squickie” and its leopard slug cousin “Slickie.” Andy preferred the colored flatbacked millipedes and the giant North American millipedes, whose defense mechanism is to secrete a chemical containing cyanide, faintly scenting them of almonds. I came to think of a large fishing spider that lived in the dead tree above my head as my pet away from home.
Although Shiva and I had some perturbed mammalian visitors by our tent on the first night hiking to the campsite, we didn’t spot as many vertebrates near our home base as we expected. We did hear a variety of birds: sapsuckers, a barred owl, red-breasted grosbeaks, cardinals, sparrows, wrens, chickadees, and warblers, including the black-throated green warbler whose mating call sounds like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song – “Heroes in a half shell!” Laura caught a Southern toad on the trail, and Andy and Shiva startled a rattlesnake on their afternoon run. In the water, I managed to catch one of the smallest salamanders in the world, the pygmy salamander. It was so translucent that you could see all its internal organs and its beating heart.
While wishing for someone with foraging knowledge to prepare us a camp meal, we came across some chanterelles a quarter of a mile from camp. After scaring ourselves with horrific fungus poisoning stories, we left the chanterelles in the forest to decompose the decaying matter around them. The damp conditions were perfect for the toadstools, shelf fungi, and coral fungi. Their fellow decomposers, slime molds, also populated the fallen rotting trees. The log outside my tent became covered in white, marshallow-like poufs almost overnight. Other logs were covered in slime molds of various shapes, colors, and textures.
The striking thing about the wildlife we saw was that quite a few are threatened or endangered, particularly in certain parts of their habitat ranges, and very few opportunities are left to see these species. Having the chance to see these organisms was certainly a wonderful experience. However, our hiking hack aspired to garner the potential of technology – something that seems to be incompatible with nature – to encourage people to engage with the natural environment and instill a sense of stewardship. Helping to preserve these natural wonders – that is a truly exciting prospect indeed.