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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, Smokies: 75 and Balding

This past week was both a fun time of memory building with my family, and a terrible tease all at once. While my wife and I had a wonderful week with our two little girls at DollyWood in Pigeon Forge, TN the tease came in driving directly through the heart of one of my favorite backpacking destinations: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


The Smokies turn 75 years old this year (the park, not the billion-plus-year old mountains) and it remains the most visited national park in the nation. However, as we stopped at the crest of the range at Newfound Gap (both to assuage the cries of, “I’ve gotta PEE!” and to indulge my desire to reminisce on the AT) I noticed something troubling that has been more apparent each time I return to the Smokies: dead trees. Turns out there are 3 causes for the die-offs that are all interrelated: BWA, HWA, and Acid Rain. BWA stands for Balsam Woolly Adelgid, an insect that arrived on trees from Europe and spread into the Smokies in the early 60s. The primary target of the BWA is the Fraser Fir which is indigenous only to the Southern Appalachians, farmed for use as highly sought-after Christmas Trees, and was once the dominant tree in the uppermost subalpine zone of the 5000+ elevations in the park. By injecting adult trees with a toxin, BWA renders the Fraser unable to absorb nutrients and it effectively causes death by starvation. To date 95% of the Fraser Firs in the park have been killed.

HWA stands for Hemlock Woolly Adelgid which is another bug and a newer threat. This bug is of Asian descent and wasn’t discovered in the park until 7 years ago. As the name suggests, this pest targets Hemlock trees which grow at elevations below the Spruce-Fir forests at the crest of the range. Hemlocks account for some of the largest living trees in the park, with some in old-growth groves that are over 400 years old. Unfortunately every hemlock in the Smokies has already been affected by HWA. A difference between BWA and HWA is that HWA affects trees of all ages whereas BWA only affects mature trees. While this is good news for Frasers (the 5% that are left anyway) it is really bad news for Hemlocks and the ecosystems that depend on them (pretty much everything below 4500’).

The third cause is Acid Rain, or perhaps more appropriately: Acid Clouds. The number one offender here is coal burning power plants to the east of the Smokies which pour tons of harmful pollutants into the air every day, not the least of which is sulfur. The highly acidic emissions from these plants results in clouds that condense and hover over the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains with measured Ph levels as low as 2. Coal Power is the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in America, and a major contributor to smog and acid rain.

So what are the solutions?

For BWA several ineffective treatments were attempted prior to discovering an effective one in the 1980s. A fatty spray applied to the trunks of trees has proven effective in prevention, but by the time it was discovered, the vast majority of the park’s firs had been infected. The other limitation to this treatment’s effectiveness is that trees must be treated individually and the altitude at which these trees grow often present access issues.

For HWA, the initial approach was a treatment with chlorinated nicotine, but like the BWA treatment had limitations in terms of practical implications of treating trees individually. As a result, the park service began to explore alternative means of treatment and have recently begun using a small beetle which is a natural predator of HWA. While it will never be a complete treatment, it is hoped that this sustainable, biological treatment will be effective in controlling the spread of HWA.

The solution for reduction of acid rain is obvious: fight coal power, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, support green power initiatives. And here is where the interrelatedness comes in: fighting the source of the acid rain will also help to stop the spread of these Woolly Adelgids. How? The recent spread of Woolly Adelgids and increase in their devastation is a direct result of global climate change brought on by the buildup of greenhouse gasses. Research has shown that as climate change results in warmer average winter temperatures, the lifespan, reproduction rate and habitat range for Woolly Adelgids are all growing. Because of the buildup of greenhouse gasses, these insects are able to survive winters, reproduce more times per year and survive in higher latitudes and altitudes than ever before.

To get involved and work to fight climate change at home and in your community follow the following links:
Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org/air/default.asp
Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org/
National Parks Conservation Association: http://www.npca.org/
We Can Solve It: http://www.wecansolveit.org/

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Linville Gorge: North Carolina's Deepest Secret



"So you've been here before?" I'm asked as we travel down I-40 towards Morganton, NC. "Lots," I reply, considering the significance of my response. You see, I'm the type of backpacker who likes to plan a trip that thoroughly samples what an area has to offer and then I'm done with it - been there, done that. Not so with the 12,002 acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Despite countless day hikes, dozens of overnights and a good measure of multi-day treks, I know with a profound certainty that it will be quite some time before I'm finished with “The Gorge.”

Often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the East," Linville Gorge offers some of the most rugged and wild terrain in existence in the eastern U.S. It is increasingly rare to find opportunities for true solitude so close to civilization, but with easy access as close as 17 miles from I-40, the Gorge somehow offers its visitors insulation from crowds, city lights, and traffic sounds.

As we leave the trailhead at Wolf Pit Road in the Southeastern corner of the wilderness the initial climb immediately reveals one of the Gorge's constant dynamic processes: fire and regrowth. Lush vegetation and wildflowers flourish in the rich soil left behind by the charred trees from several recent fires. A mile later though, we merge onto the North Carolina Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), and leave the fire-scarred slopes of Shortoff Mountain in exchange for the sweeping vistas along the cliffs of its summit.

Elevations in the gorge range from 1300’ to 4040’ and the walls are often steep, providing dramatic scenery, rock-climbing opportunities, and ideal nesting sites for the area’s Peregrine Falcons.

Linville Gorge was one of the first formally designated National Wilderness Areas upon passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Prior to that, the Gorge’s steep walls had been highly effective in protecting the resident wildlife, old-growth forest, and Cherokee people for whom the Gorge and several of its prominent features were held as sacred. Few explorers of European descent ventured into the Gorge at all until the recent past, due in part to the experience of the Gorge’s namesakes John and William Linville who were scalped by the Cherokee residents of the Gorge in 1766. Today the Cherokee are gone, but the old-growth forest of oak, maple, hickory, locust, poplar, fir and Carolina hemlock remain as well as ample fauna including black bear, deer, squirrel, raccoon, grouse, turkey, vultures, herons, owls, osprey, hawks, woodpeckers, salamanders, lizards, copperheads and timber rattlers, trout and small-mouth bass.

Continuing north along the Eastern Rim of the Gorge on the MST we are guided by three of the most prominent – and popular – features of the area: The Chimneys, Table Rock and Hawksbill. Several trailheads are found at the base of these three iconic summits which draw a steady flow of day-hikers. Like many of them we cannot resist the craggy playground of The Chimneys and after exploring its pillars, crags and caves, we decide to stay and enjoy the jaw-dropping 360 degree vistas. We’re well rewarded for our site-finding prowess by both sunset and sunrise with uninterrupted views of the Gorge, Lake James to the South, Mt. Mitchell (Highest peak east of the Mississippi at 6684’) to the west, Grandfather Mountain (elevation 5946’) to the North and seemingly endless misty ridges to the East. In the morning we’re tempted to summit Table Rock via the one-mile spur trail, but skip it in exchange for better chances at solitude along the primitive Little Table Rock Trail and beyond. After listeningg the muffled roar of the river for the past 10 miles, we decide it is time to get a close-up.

The Linville River snakes approximately 13 miles through the gorge, descending from the dramatic triple drop of Linville Falls 1200’ to the Gorge’s southern terminus near Lake James. Shadowing the river nearly the entire length is the Linville Gorge Trail (LGT). The LGT can be accessed from the east via the Spence Ridge Trail and from the West Rim via a handful of steep, but popular trails. While some trails in Linville Gorge are tamer than others this is a true wilderness; signage is scarce and trails are rarely maintained. Excellent fitness and backcountry skills are a must – with route-finding paramount. These truths were illustrated in living color when we met a local backcountry SAR team on the MST en route to a hiker in distress. The victim, described as a female physician in her mid-thirties, had been hiking with her husband when they found themselves at the bottom of the dead-ended Cambric Branch Trail. Facing extremely steep terrain, slow going and stifling humidity ushered in by a tropical weather front she had begun to experience heart palpitations and was fading in and out of consciousness. Later reports revealed the source of the problem: extreme dehydration.

Crossing the river at the only bridge in the gorge at the Spence Ridge Trail we turn left onto the LGT and immediately set our sights on finding a primo swimming hole; Cathedral Falls. Ducking under the archway formed by two dump-truck sized boulders we stagger spellbound into what, in any other location, would be the most popular swimming hole in the state. Today, at the bottom of this dramatic cut in the earth, it’s all ours. Our little oasis has 5’, 10’ and 15’ rock jumps into seemingly bottomless pools, a polished river-rock beach, several bouldering routes, and a cave/falls combo that boggles the senses. After lunching, basking, swimming, scrambling, and diving we reluctantly pack up to move on. There is clear evidence of the abundant trout population just below the surface, but the sun is too high for the fish to be interested in eating, so I keep my fly rod holstered for now.

Heading south on the LGT we crane our necks to see the cliffs above where we had spent the day prior. The navigability of the trail along the river varies considerably. Some stretches feature difficult-to-travel trail strewn with blow-downs. Other sections are wide and clear with occasional high-impact areas located at the base of each of the Western Rim descents from Kistler Memorial Highway. Unfortunately, some of these sites see more than their fair share of trash as weekend-warriors descend steep trails from the rim laden with heavy amenities and are unwilling to pack the load out on the uphill return. Still, on this peak season weekend in the heart of the gorge, we see more wildlife than humanity which is just fine with us.

The northern section of the Gorge – explored in depth on multiple previous expeditions - is defined by the tight and serpentine canyon-like walls and impressive cascades resulting from the river’s navigation thereof. In addition to the powerful Linville Falls at the northern terminus of the Gorge, a major highlight in this section is Babel Tower – a prominent pinnacle of rock rising from the center of the Gorge, wrapped in 300 degrees by the winding river. It was from a ledge on this tower that I enjoyed panoramic views of the Leonid Meteor Shower in 2001. Below the tower is a locally-renowned swimming hole with a corkscrew waterslide and 10’, 15’, and 40’ cliff jumps.

Passing the southernmost of the Rim to River trails, Pinch-In, I employ some of my prior scouting and suggest we seek out a tried and true campsite on an island in the river. Crossing the tree that served as our bridge, we settle into the important business of fishing, swimming, pitching camp and cooking. With three of the river’s natives caught and released, a swim under my belt, and a full belly it was time to retire.

Showers during the night bring a quick three foot rise to the river’s level at our island. Safely out of reach of the murky rapids we pack for the final day in the Gorge. The southern end of the LGT is actually a dead end; private property at the mouth of the gorge has prevented the Forest Service from establishing an outlet to the trail. To exit the gorge on the southern end requires traversing out of the bottom of the gorge on the west side and intersecting with the MST. A newly blazed, but heretofore unsanctioned trail achieves this traverse in a mile – simply follow the LGT until you meet blue-circle blazes which ascend to the Southwest. Seeking to kill some extra time and tempt fate, our party opts instead for a cross country traverse across the steep slopes below The Pinnacle. We’re at once rewarded by views the cliffs below Shortoff and an intimate perspective on the deep forest of the southern gorge and punished by the rugged terrain and numerous obstacles. All present and intact we arrive at the MST and turn East to complete our loop. Only two details stand in our way: a ford of the swollen Linville River and an 1800’ climb up Shortoff Mountain.

Having watced the river swallow the beach where we’d pumped our water the night before, we are concerned about the ford ahead. It doesn’t help when a northbound backpacker points to his navel saying, “It was up to here on me, but I was lucky – I crossed yesterday.” Arriving at the ford our fears are reinforced as the river appears the color of chocolate milk with no indication of the slightest riffle at the prescribed crossing point.

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After thorough scouting though, we find a promising route linking a rocky island and a prominent riffle to cross. Although the current is powerful we are able to cross without incident, mostly at knee level with a waist deep dunk at the far bank.

The final climb brings satisfying closure as we return to the fire-scarred yet resilient slopes of Shortoff Mountain – the prominent Southwestern punctuation of Linville Gorge. The new growth is studded with vibrant wildflowers, offerring a sharp contrast to the charred remnants of trees which reflect the late afternoon sun. Descending the final leg of the trail back to the Wolf Pit parking area our aching bodies and high spirits remind us of the punishing beauty of the trails of Linville Gorge.


The Hike: Linville Gorge Loop – 22 Miles Click Here for Interactive map and GPS Downloads
Starting at Wolf Pit Road parking area ascend the Wolf Pit Trail turning right onto the NC Mountains to Sea Trail (white circle blazed). Continue North on the MST along the Gorge’s East Rim along Shortoff Mountain, up and over the craggy formations and sweeping views (and stellar camping) of the Chimneys and to the base of Table Rock (a 1 mile spur trail leads to the summit). Next bear left onto the Little Table Rock Trail followed by another Left at its junction with the Spence Ridge Trail which drops to, and crosses, the Linville River. Once on the West Side of the River turn left onto the Linville Gorge Trail (LGT) and parallel the river headed south between the plunging walls of the Gorge. After5.5 miles on the LGT, you’ll pass the remains of an old homestead and crossing a tributary the trail beings to climb. Turn left onto the Blue-Blazed, 1 mile connector and follow the traverse to reconnect with the Mountains to Sea Trail. A left onto the MST will bring you down to the River for a 60 yard-wide ford followed by a 1800’ climb back to the shoulder of Shortoff Mountain and the Wolf Pit Trail. A right here will return you to the parking area following a one mile descent.
Directions:
From Interstate 40 in North Carolina Take exit 105 for NC-18 toward Morganton/Shelby. Continue on NC18/Green St./NC181 for 6.5 Miles and turn left onto Frank Whisnant Rd/NC-1250. Follow Frank Whisnant Rd/NC-1250 for 2.5 miles and turn right onto NC 126/Yellow Mountain Rd for 6 miles. Turn right onto Wolf Pit Road and follow to parking area at its end.
Red Tape:
A permit is required to camp overnight on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and holidays between May 1st and October 31st. No more than 10 people per group. Maximum length of stay is 3 days and 2 nights. Call the Grandfather District Ranger at 828-652-4841 or 2144 to secure a permit.
More information and data on Linville Gorge and its trails can be found at: http://www.linvillegorge.net/

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Tent Quiver: 1, 2, & 3 Person Shelters

The tent. THE quintessential piece of camping equipment (sort of). Here are my standard go-to tents for 3-season (and southern 4-season) trips and the "why" behind these choices:


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This tent has been my go-to solo tent since 2003 for 2 simple reasons: weight and functionality. This little badboy is freestanding, super-lightweight, bugproof, long enough for tall folks, stormproof, has a vestibule, as a fastpack option (footprint and rainfly only when bugs are not of concern), you can sit up in it, and its an awesome stealth green for low-impact camping. At just a hair over 2lbs for the whole tent and considerably less for the fastpack option this is just about the lightest freestanding solo tent out there. The bathtub floor keeps out splash from driving rain and ample guyout points allow for a super-taught pitch when conditions (rain and/or precip) warrant. It should also be noted that this tent comes in 2 and 3 person versions as well that perform just as admirably.

The Double: Six Moon Designs Europa II

With enough space for two adults, all their gear and a dog inside you'd expect for a shelter to come in weighing more than 4 lbs - howzabout less than 2 lbs? Now don't get too pumped because the Europa II is no longer produced. The one I have is from 2004 and has been discontinued (although I can't imagine why), but there are others out there that are similar. Golite, Six Moon Designs, and Tarptent are all manufacturers that produce a similar shelter using trekking pole support(s) to save on weight and guylines to provide tension and structure. While a step up from a tarp in that these shelters offer bug protection, these shelters are minimalist. In fact, the Europa doesn't even have a front door! However, despite the light weight and simple lines, these things stand up very well to the elements and when pitched correctly can (from experience) withstand tropical storm rain, hail, up to 2" of snow, and 20+ mph winds. With ample venting, these shelters also have negligible condensation problems, even with a single wall of non-breathable sil-nylon. The closes thing to the Europa II that I've found currently in production is the Tarptent Squall 2. Its a little more robust (it even has a door!), but still weighs in at a mere 34 oz.

The Triple (sort of): Black Diamond Skylight

Alright so the 3 person status of this tent has to be qualified because I've not yet tried to cram 3 people into it with the exception of myself and my 3 and 5 year old little girls. I think its safe to say that it'd be a friendly fit for three, but with a decent vestibule, great head space and ample length it could certainly be done. Now enough qualifying: Black Diamond makes an awesome line of single-wall tents called their Superlight series. By eliminating the traditional double-wall (body and rainfly) design using waterproof breathable Epic by Nextec fabric, Black Diamond has been able to offer more tent for less weight. With the Skylight you get a 2-3 person, freestanding shelter that guys out tight enough for 3+ season use. The vestibule is a good size and the best feature is that the front 2/3 peel back for mesh-only ventilation and views in good weather. At just a hair over 4 lbs. this is my heaviest tent by far, but 4lbs. is still ridiculously light compared to most industry standard 2 person tents, let alone 3 person tents. With the supplemental seam-sealing recommended in my previous post this tent is a high-performance bomber of a tent.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Do-it-Yourself Ultralight Pot Coozie: Hey, it works for your beer…

Whether you’re the kind of camper who brings a folding chair, a bottle of wine, and a ribeye to the campsite or a ounce-counting, Ray-Way ultralighter, everyone appreciates an addition to their base-load that serves several purposes, saves weight, time, and effort without sacrificing comfort, and best of all costs nearly nothing.

What’s a Coozie?
A pot coozie is an insulated cylinder with a base and a lid cut to fit your cookware. It serves 3 basic purposes:
1. A place to store your cookware: Protects your cookware against damage from impact during falls and muffles rattling of pots/pans within your pack (you’re never going to spot Sasquatch if he can hear you coming from a mile away).
2. Cooks your food without fuel: Maintains your meal at cooking temperature so that pasta rice and other meals that require boiling or simmering can continue to cook after the stove is shut off.
3. Allows you to keep food/drink warm if you’re not going to eat or drink it all at once (cold coffee s no fun in December).


So how is wrapping up your cookpot going to save you time, weight and money?

Whether you’re using Fuel Canisters, Liquid fuel, denatured alcohol or (God forbid) Esbit tabs, fuel has 3 basic properties: it has weight, costs money and you generally don’t want to run out of it during a trip. A coozie costs nearly nothing to make and allows you to save up to 2/3 of your normal fuel consumption cooking dinners. Weight is a no-brainer as all fuels have weight to them and you’ll be able to leave a bunch of it at home. And you’ll save time in camp because you’ll be able boil your water and then set your pot inside the coozie to cook and go do other things rather than constantly stirring and adjusting the flame control on your stove to prevent boil-over or burning.


So what do you need to make your very own?

-A Closed cell foam pad. The best bet is the standard blue foam pad sold in the camping section of your local mega-mart. These are usually in the neighborhood of $10 and you’ll get a lot more than one Coozie’s worth out of it (in fact you’ll still have enough for a ¾ length sleeping pad when you’re done).
-Duct tape.
-Scissors or box-cutter.
-A measuring tape.

The first step is to make the lid and base of the coozie. These will be circles of equal size, one of which will be attached to the cylinder of the coozie (base), the other stays separate (lid). Mark and cut the lid and base by placing you pot or lid down on the foam and tracing ½” wider than the widest part of your cookset (lid, or pot rim).
Next you’ll need to mark out a rectangle of foam. To find the length, measure the circumference of the base you’ve cut and mark off that length on a straight edge of the blue foam. To find the width, place your pot with the lid on atop the base cutout and measure the height of the pot, lid, and base foam and add one inch. Cut this rectangle out and tape the sides into a cylinder by running a piece of duct tape up the outside of the joint, back down the inside, and around again with ½ of the duct tape on each side of the seam. Next wrap the entire
Now attach the base to the cylinder by making an “X” across the base (outside) with overlap onto the outside of the cylinder. Next wrap the circumference of the lower rim of the cylinder, securing each of the four ends of the “X” and folding over to seal the seam with the base.

That’s it! The only trick is that what we’ve been referring to as the “lid” is actually the base. Place your pot on the unattached circle of foam and slide the body of the coozie over the pot (with folded or removed handle(s)). (see top picture) The reason for this is that this way you can use gravity to pull the pot out of the bottom of the coozie rather than having to lift the pot out of the top of the coozie. This way its much easier to use and doesn’t require cutting a slot for the pot handle(s) which does not work out so well (trust me, I’ve tried it).
A bonus is that the “lid” doubles as an ultralight foam seat for around camp.

Happy hiking!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Barney (Fife) v. BooBoo (Bear): The Shootout



Winston-Salem, NC Police gunned down a black bear in a neighborhood on the night of July 13th. The Chief of Police, Scott Cunningham defended his department’s actions saying, “We didn’t think it was worth it to wait for the bear to become hostile.”



Newsflash: Hostility is not an inevitability in Black Bears, especially not this one. The victim in this tragedy was a juvenile female weighing around 100 lbs. She was small, thin and on the move, looking for a new range with adequate resources to support her – certainly not what she was finding in a suburban neighborhood in Winston-Salem, NC. This bear had not exhibited ANY aggression other than that perceived by the ignorant suburbanites who attribute aggression to all bears (and all wild animals for that matter) as some sort of inherent trait. You don’t have to take my word for it though – Colleen Olfenbuttel, a NC Wildlife Resources Commission Biologist offered the Winston-Salem Journal the following:

“Bears won’t stay [in a suburban neighborhood]. It just doesn’t offer the habitat they need. They may show up for a few days or a week, and as long as people aren’t feeding them incidentally, they’ll keep moving on. I’ve never heard of a situation where a bear walks into a neighborhood and it escalates into aggression.”

The ignorance regarding bears has been rampantly apparent in the piedmont of North Carolina lately as there have been numerous black bear sightings in the areas of High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, an urban and suburban area of North Central North Carolina at the intersections of Interstates 40 and 85 often referred to as the “Triad.” During the last few weeks news reports have included such ridiculous discussions as whether or not residents should purchase bear spray, and closures of community pools and playgrounds for fear that bears would be attracted to such areas to have easy pickins on the children playing there (because everyone knows that juvenile black bears can eat up to 5 elementary school children before their appetites are satiated).


According to Olfenbuttel bears are moving through the Triad this time of year for several reasons:


□ Young bears have left their mothers and are trying to establish new territories. Forsyth County is on the edge of prime bear habitat, so it's no surprise to Olfenbuttel that a few bears are passing through.
□ Food is not as abundant in late spring and summer, and that forces bears to venture south and east in search of soft berries, such as cherries and blackberries.
□ When such food isn't readily available, bears rely on their keen sense of smell, which could lead them to garbage cans or grills.
□ Male bears are more active this time of year because it is the breeding season.

These bears have always moved through this area from points east, west and north, all of which host prime bear habitat. The only difference is that humans are moving into the forest and river corridors previously used by the bears for these migrations and the uninhabited corridors are vanishing. The result is that people are reacting with, “what the hell is this bear doing in my neighborhood?” While the bears are thinking (more justifiably), “Dang, where’d all the woods go, and where’d all these cars, fences and barking dogs come from?”


The bottom line is that this is another sad reminder of how far removed form the real world that modern Americans have become. The majority of people are so disconnected from anything outside of their TV and blackberry that they have no idea what is or isn’t indigenous to their own backyard let alone anything about the flora and fauna of their home state. This bear posed no threat and was killed needlessly out of pure ignorance and sensationalism. Get your kids, yourself, your friends and family outdoors and off the couch, out of the mall and away form the Blackberry and go pick some blackberries. Otherwise we’re headed for Wall-E….


(Click here for photo credits for bottom picture of juvenile black bear)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Don't Smoke the Hobblebush

Throughout the Appalachians and pervasive in the mountains and foothills of the Southeast are three members of the plant family Ericaceae (Heath) that all wilderness travelers should be familiar with. Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Azalea are all known for their evergreen foliage, and showy summer blooms, but also can pose a danger to both humans and animals: all three are toxic.

Rhododendron, also referred to by some locals as "Hobblebush" due to its nebulous branches and roots that make for nightmarish bushwhacking and near-guaranteed turned ankles, blooms in June in the Southern Appalachians and makes for breathtaking swaths of color at destinations such as Roan Mountain, Shining Rock, Linville Gorge, Mount Rogers, Grandfather Mountain and the Smokies. The long, waxy leaves have historically been used as a holistic, topical treatment for sore, inflamed joints.
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Mountain Laurel is the little brother to Rhododendron with smaller branches and leaves and blooms that are said to resemble peppermint candies. Similar to Rhodys, Mountain Laurel bloom in May and June and often grown in large thickets, covering the mountain floor.
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Azalea is commonly used as a landscaping plant, but due to its low need for direct sunlight it also thrives in the understory of Appalachian Mountain Forests. Known for is brilliant spring blooms in various colors ranging from white to yellow, red, orange, pink, and purple azalea is generally even more slight than Mountain Laurel in stature and in leaf size.
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So beyond the pretty pictures and botany lesson, what does this have to do with wilderness adventure? Like I said, all three of these species are TOXIC. And not just sorta toxic - every part of these plants are toxic. In addition to ingestion, the other method of experiencing the toxicity of these plants is by inhaling their smoke. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've seen fire-rings in the Appalachians with half-burnt Rhody, Laurel or Azalea wood left behind (insert obligatory plug for Leave-No-Trace practices). Still not convinced? Ok, time for scare tactics - symptoms include: Salivation, watering of eyes and nose, abdominal pain, loss of energy, depression, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, difficulty breathing, progressive paralysis of arms and legs, coma. So don't smoke the Hobblebush. I rest my case.


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