Into the Woods: Ritchie Hollow

Just downstream from Chattanooga, the Tennessee river takes a sharp westward turn, leaving its meandering (though now tightly TVA-controlled) path through the Great Appalachian Valley to squeeze through a narrow cut in the Cumberland Plateau like so much toothpaste.

In earlier times, the Tennessee River Gorge was one of the most feared stretches of waterway to navigate. This immense volume of water in a tight space between rocky banks created a fast current with numerous shoals and eddies, before the construction of the (now-demolished) Hales Bar Dam in 1913 regulated the water level. Even today, by virtue of the terrain, the gorge is one of the least developed and least accessible areas of the Chattanooga metro area.

The same features that keep this area inhospitable to development have helped keep it wild. The steep, rocky slopes rising directly from the river harbor impressive biodiversity, and much of this natural wealth is protected and managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and Prentice Cooper State Forest.

Until recently the only easy ways to explore this area was from above (via the Cumberland Trail and other trails in Prentice Cooper or at the TVA’s Raccoon Mountain facility on the south rim of the gorge) or below (via a long drive down Mullen’s Cove Rd.). The only folks able to enjoy the slopes themselves have been the rock climbers who flock to the “T-wall“.

A new TRGT-managed trail opens up a beautiful cleft of the gorge for day-hikers. The Ritchie Hollow Trail opened in January 2018, connecting the top and bottom of the gorge. For about a mile, the trail weaves side-slope from Pot Point through a lush cove forest and across several small streams, before turning to chart a steep, strenuous course to the top of the plateau where it meets the Cumberland Trail at mile 2.2.

I finally made it out to try this one on April 14 (a hot, muggy day in the midst of an otherwise chilly spring), and it seems tailor-made to take advantage of the spring wildflower season. Mayapple, fernleaf phacelia, crested dwarf iris, bellwort, solomon’s seal, woodland phlox, trilliums, blue cohosh, rue anemone, ferns, maple-leaved viburnum, red buckeye, and many others were in full display along the lower section of the trail. Higher up, it looked more like winter than spring, with minimal foliage, but the first of the Pinxterbloom azaleas were starting to pop up there. Moreover, the whole route was generally devoid of the invasive shrubs and vines so prevalent around here, save the odd bush honeysuckle or paulownia.

The steep climb of mile 2 caught me a bit by surprise after the gentle rise of the first mile, but it’s nothing more intense than most routes in the region that make the ascent up to the plateau. Because the trail begins right next to the river, the full climb to the rim rises nearly 1,300 ft. At about the 1.6 mile mark, mid-climb, there is a nice 30+’ waterfall just off the main path. After the last pull, I took a short (.5 mile) breather stretch along the relative flat CT, and even scrambled off-trail to a rock outcropping at the actual summit. The woods were very quiet, so much so that I even scared up a large turkey trailside, who then proceeded to fly downslope a few hundred yards. Quite a sight.

Even at that, it only took a leisurely hour to get to the top. The descent was much faster, though I’ll chalk that up to keeping a near-running pace as I tried to beat a thunderstorm back to my car.

In all, this is a fine addition to the great trails of our area, and one I’m sure I’ll be back to visit again.

 

Into the Woods: North Chickamauga Creek Gorge

After a rather lackluster (or, for the cold-natured among us, pleasant) winter, the Tennessee Valley is in the full throes of spring. This means it’s high time to spend every dry weekend outside before heat, copperheads, spiders, and poison ivy tempt me to retreat to more air-conditioned environs. Fortunately, the area affords many such opportunities within a short drive.

Today’s entry was a spot that I’ve not explored much before, despite it being less than half an hour from home. North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State IMG_6089Natural Area is just a couple of miles off a major highway, and bordered by subdivisions. In the midst of expanding suburbia, this 7,000+ acre preserve is quite the breath of fresh air.

It’s water rather than air, though, that defines the space here. Unlike where I grew up in Western North Carolina, water isn’t as ubiquitous here, even with over 50″ of rain in an average year. It’s plentiful enough during winter and spring, but long, dry summers snatch up surface water, keeping the forests around here much drier than in the main spine of the Appalachians (or even the western side of the Cumberland Plateau). The gorge floor in August is almost a dry riverbed, but in March it is a clear, cold, forceful stream. In fact, we had to cut our walk short because the water was too high to ford safely where the main trail crosses the creek.

North Chick was until 2006 one of several “Pocket Wilderness” sites tucked into cracks in the plateau and set aside for public access and recreation by the former Bowater paper company. This gesture of goodwill was not as altruistic as it seems, as the Pockets’ steep, rocky terrain made them as useless for pulpwood harvesting as they were good for recreation. Most of the former Pockets have been transferred to state or federal conservation agencies, with most (this one included) roped in to the Cumberland Trail network.

Of the hike itself, I don’t have much to say. It was a pretty day and the grandparents had the kids, so most of our visit consisted of sitting on a rock by the creek talking. Aside from the main trail, we ventured a bit up the lower Hogskin Loop.IMG_6096 It’s very rocky, but nothing too hard. We simply weren’t in the mood for strenuous hiking today.

Like most creek bottoms, the relative preponderance of water means more vegetation than the slopes above. Given the seasonal pattern of moisture as well, spring is the best time to see the most unique and fleeting plant life. The best wildflower blooms are still a few weeks off, but many are already breaking through the leaf cover. Delicate trilliums, geraniums, and others soak up as much light as they can in the few weeks between last frost and the full leafing of the forest canopy. This was a very healthy forest, for whatever reason spared the underbrush takeover by invasive bush honeysuckle and privet that characterizes so much of the region. Native understory shrubs like mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron, mapleleaf viburnum, and red buckeye are here in abundance.

This little nook of our county is quite a spot, and a good reminder that sometimes a long way away can be right around the corner. Every metro area needs a little wilderness to spice it up, and Chattanooga certainly has these in spades.

 

 

 

 

About a Drought

As I survey my lawn so brown,
Thunder gurgles across our town,
Lightning blisters my rods and cones,
Promising rain soon to come down.

‘Tis not to be. Oh! life’s unknowns.
The storm rolls on to moister zones.
We want it so. That’s the kicker.
But we cannot drink from these stones.

In the distance fades the flicker,
I can almost hear the snicker
Of the crickets humming dryly,
Thankful as a parched picnicker.

Water tempts with hope so wryly.
Imagining rain so nighly,
That the sound of droplets shyly
Dancing in clouds gets me smiley.

invasive_cheatgrass_28859768806729

Photo Credit: Jaepil Cho. CC BY 2.0

On the Side: Takin’ Care of Business

Marginally profitable side businesses are the stock-in-trade of young families.

The ongoing race between month and money always comes down to a nose, so we cheat, dressing the one up like a halloween witch and hoping the judges don’t notice.

At different times this has taken the form of landscape design (me), editing college papers, resumes, and sundry writings of others (me, though usually quid pro quo), summer daycare (Rachel), non-profit office temporary help (Rachel), tutoring in a homeschool co-up (Rachel, also quid pro quo so our kids can attend), selling insurance (Rachel), and selling books (Rachel, currently). Whatever it takes to pad the bottom line so the bills don’t outpace the savings.

My latest venture came to me by a friend’s suggestion. He found a service that does (for a small feFlower Checkere) what I can’t seem to stop doing everywhere I go–telling people just what kind of plant they happen to be looking at. A few e-mails later, and I found myself working ad hoc on the back end of a Czech web business: FlowerChecker.

The basic premise involves a purchased app (there is also a free version now) in which users buy credits to redeem for positive ID from uploaded images of plants they’ve encountered. The fun comes in from the fact that there is no sophisticated, algorithmic database analysis running the show. Rather, FlowerChecker is a good old-fashioned mechanical Turk, with dozens of botany nerds (like myself) on the back end debating IDs and resolving requests. Each of us gets a small cut of the company’s earnings for completed requests weekly. Seriously, try it out sometime.

Beyond that, through a friend of a friend, I’ve been engaged in editing a medical text for missionary/rural doctors in the developing world. Freelancing will land you in all kinds of projects. This one has plenty of long words, grotesque illustrations, and helpful information, but it’s a privilege to help out with ministry in this way. Getting
paid a little for my time and effort is nice as well.

The blogging and other writing work are footing the bill for all this fun, sacrificing their Dollartime for the good of the group, but balance and routine will return in their season.

So the march goes on, and every little bit helps. Momma dollar and Poppa dollar are hard at work on the multiplication process as we speak.