Fence lizards and sex


I’ve touched on eastern fence lizards before in my book Wildly Strolling Along. I’ve seen them on the tops of the Cumberlands and more recently at the top of House Mountain in the summer. Oddly enough though not much on fences.

Fence Lizard
Blurry? You try getting a fence lizard to stay still to be in focus.

I have so much else to write about, between New York City, NY; and Rumney and Stinson Lake NH which I’ve done since the House Mountain trip that I don’t have time to give a full run through on everything about these animals. So instead, I’ll just focus on mating.

And indeed, male fence lizards do much to sell themselves to females. If you want an academic take, this might be up to your speed. To summarize, males show off their blue throats and do push-ups to attract mates. I can do neither. You’d be lucky to see five pushups in a row from me before I collapse, as my girlfriend can attest. And yet she’s stayed with me for five years.

Immediately after sex, fence lizards go their separate ways and then the males try to hook up with someone else, so comparing them to any long term romantic human relationship isn’t really helpful. That’s probably just as well. If you pick a long term husband based on how well he shows off his blue throat, I doubt it would work out.

Also, the mothers also bury their eggs rather than watching them. We can’t judge them by our standards.

Also according to the above link, fence lizards are “fully mature” after one year.

As a side note, it’s rather odd that we consistently refer to sexual passion as being “animal.” And yet many animals have a specific mating season and never do anything else about sex at any other time of the year.

 

 

 

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Berry Time in Tennessee!


Not quite ripe berries.
Some not quite ripe fruit near House Mountain.

It was just barely berry time a few weeks ago at the bottom of House Mountain. Meaning back in Tennessee it should be berry season now. I’m in New Hampshire meaning I have wild blueberries to eat, but anyone in Tennessee can enjoy the berries you have now. Any overgrown clearing, such as the one near House Mountain should be teeming with blackberries and raspberries.

Some taste sour when not quite ready, but so long as they’re at least kind of black, I tend to dig in.

My book “Wildly Strolling Along” has a section on Tennessee’s wild fruit, which I encourage you to check out. Blackberries and raspberries aren’t actually berries in the botanical sense of the word, but rather aggregate fruit. They’re pretty distinctive looking things and as my botanist Dad told me recently, no toxic fruit look like them.

If you want to learn more about which blackberries, blackberries or dewberries the ones in your area (if you’re in Tennessee) might be, check out this page  from the same university that gave my Dad his degree. Go Vols!

 

Hiking House Mountain in summer


House Mountain is a hidden treasure: a mountain very close to Knoxville, apart from both the Smokies and Cumberlands. While short even by East Tennessee standards, you can still see miles of surrounding countryside from its summit.

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The view from House Mountain.

Yvonne and I climbed up the Mountain Trail recently with our friend Linda. The two of us had originally wanted to reach Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains, but due to time concerns we aimed for something closer and shorter.

Closer and shorter, but still sweltering in the summer. Our older friend Linda, who came with us, decided to quit and lie on a rock rather than climb up all the way. We also ran out of water quickly in spite of me thinking I had enough bottles for Gregory’s Bald.

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House Mountain’s trail features various wildflowers.

In the summer, the climb features berries, butterflies and wildflowers, many of which will lead to later posts on this blog so stay tuned. It also features poison ivy, which doesn’t much affect me, but may lead to problems for others. So you may need long pants and even more water. But for me the trail is worth it.

Many locals know it well, so you won’t be entirely alone. At least we weren’t. But once they cleared out at the summit, it was just the two of us, the fence lizards and the vultures circling below us.

The trail is rocky. This used to make Yvonne panic but now she just sees it as part of a strategy. My strategy heading down is to trot fast enough that my momentum stops me from falling. Yvonne insists on carefully putting her feet in exactly the right places.

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Another view from House Mountain

Get wet on the Cumberland Trail


Happy summer! It’s time to enjoy wading, floating, swimming and splashing around! Here are a few spots on or near Cumberland Trail State Park to do it, not in any particular order. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a start. More to come, possibly!

For more on that trail, I recommend getting my book Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail. More a collection of memoirs of day hikes with my father than a guide, it’ll nonetheless give you an in depth look at flowers, wildlife, waterfalls, rockhouses and plenty more. I’d like to thank the Cumberland Trail Conference for providing me with much of my information for that book. All photos here are by me. None of the videos are.

Obed Wild and Scenic River

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“Wartburg Beach” near Nemo Bridge. Photo by Ben Pounds

Looking down from Nemo Bridge in the protected area known as the Obed Wild and Scenic River, you may see many people floating about. If you like being with others and not far from the road, this place “Wartburg Beach” as locals call it is the spot for you. More hidden swimming spots await elsewhere in the Obed Wild and Scenic River and Catoosa Wildlife Management Area parts of the CT. I even swam naked at one of them. Just make sure you’re far away from Wartburg Beach proper before you try that.

Imodium Falls

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Imodium Falls. Photo by Ben Pounds

A fairly deep pool depending on rain sits right below Imodium Falls on the Possum Creek section. If you can get past the name, it may just be perfect for you.

I’m not usually much of one for jumping from rocks. But apparently some people are.

Piney River

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Piney River. Photo by Ben Pounds

The Piney River section in Piney River pocket wilderness area is among the best. Deep pools for swimming shallow spots for wading and, if you hike far enough, a good ways from the crowds. Ideally, experience this area as part of a backpacking trip so you can get plenty of time here like my father and I did.

The pocket Wilderness areas were created by the Bowater paper company. Piney is not to be confused with another pocket wilderness that’s even more famous and often just called “Pocket” by the locals. It’ s below.

Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness “Pocket”

Known to locals as just “Pocket” this area is near Dayton, Tennessee.

I’ve written about it in a piece for The News Sentinel and can safely say spending time there with my girlfriend Yvonne apart from my main hike was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. While on my main trek, the swimming holes were just one of the many things I explored about the place. Yet on return, I had to pry Yvonne, my girlfriend and hiking companion away from the swimming hole we found to look at other parts of the trail there.
I’m not the only one to discover it. Here’s a video from some other visitors enjoying a day there, shot with far better technology than I currently have to film it.

Chasing waterfalls at Frozen Head State Park


Falling water calls to us, but why? Or rather why does it call to me, specifically?

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A cascade after rain, crossing paths with Panther Branch Trail.

Yvonne stood there, commenting on the cascade. On the layers of rock. On how it reminded her of an artificial one that stood in an art museum.

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“It’s great hiking with an art critic,” I responded. At least she had the words to describe it.

I stood there recording her, unclear on what I could say. Waterfalls are wordless. Streams are wordless. Trees are wordless. The insides of flowers are wordless. Mountains are wordless.

And here I go prattling on about wordlessness using words. I go out into nature to escape the things I blather on about. And then come back, trying to put words to it, failing.

After rain and in cool enough weather, our route at Frozen Head State Park was a celebration of water as it crashed over rocks, fell from heights and muddied our shoes as we crossed streams in our way. People like waterfalls for their momentum, sound, movement, even small ones. The reason we find them objects of beauty varies, I suppose, but for me, it’s all about the constant movement. Stillness isn’t the goal for me in nature, even if it is for some others. Movement, sound, change, all these are. Wild yet steady. Explosive yet constant. Does it symbolize anything? Does it really need to?

So after all that stream of consciousness about streams, here’s some of the basics of where we were and what we did.

Our goal was seeing Emory Gap Falls and DeBoard Falls. The recent rain meant they would not be just trickles but places worth visiting, even if they aren’t among the area’s largest. Wanderlust gets the better of us and after many days of fussing around with unloading boxes at our new Oak Ridge apartment, we figured we needed an escape.

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Deboard Falls

 

Here is a map of Frozen Head State Park, so you can see all of its many routes.

Rather than take the short way, we took the long way, starting out at the Old Mac Trailhead and hiking up the North Old Mac Trail through a forest of leafless gray and brown bark, but with glimpses of the hills beyond us. The green of mountain laurels and the red of acorns splitting open stood out more. It was just the start of spring. Small white flowers had started to open and we saw more as we went along. Yes “small white flowers.” My “kickass botanist” father would be ashamed of me for writing that, but it’s better than getting them wrong, since he wasn’t with me.

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Dad later helped me by identifying this one as a blood root. That was my original guess anyway.

In general, the North Old Mac route has many bridge-less stream crossings after rain, crossing water that cascades down the hill. After passing a campsite, we headed down Panther Branch Trail which has even more of that, some of it a bit eroded as far as the trail went, so be careful, but enjoy. One of these cascades is the one above. It wasn’t even what people call a conventionally impressive waterfall. It was just water rolling over rocks for a great length. As a note, this cascade may not be as impressive on most days as it is after rain. It might not even be there at all in dry periods.

We then headed on the .5 mile Emory Gap Trail, toward Emory Gap Falls, which free falls from a rock ledge before continuing to fall in a stream over rocks. The area is a rocky neighborhood of boulders, outcrops and overhangs.

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Emory Gap Falls

After hiking back that .5 miles and hiking an additional .75 miles the trail reaches Deboard Falls, another waterfall which crashes down white from an overhanging ledge, this one appearing to have more water and even falling to a shallow pool. Stairs lead down to the bottom of this one.

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Deboard Falls., from another angle.

“You made it sound like this was barely more than a greenway! That there wasn’t much to see!” Yvonne said in mock-anger. True, I had said these falls were not as big as Bald River Falls in terms of sheer volume. But Bald River Falls in Cherokee, being right by a parking lot, can be pretty crowded. It doesn’t have the romance of being alone, kissing and holding the one you love while hearing the water crash down.

Please note: I do not guarantee hikers will be alone here. It may have just been the late time we were there. Don’t sue me if it’s crowded, please!

A much smaller waterfall, nameless and not on the park map greeted us before we finally made it back to the trail head. After crossing a bridge, we walked back along the road, taking the park road back to our car, passing tents, picnic areas and playgrounds and chatting about plans for future camping trips. The park, especially these playgrounds has a great nostalgia factor for me, even if the current playgrounds replaced older ones in their places. As a child we came here often. And I look forward to many more trips here.

Frozen Head: North Old Mac and Spicewood trails


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Old, metal, standing in the middle of a mountain which makes it seem taller, all of that ready to make anyone afraid of heights even a little nervous. But it’s one of the best if not the best view Frozen Head State Park  has to offer.

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People call it the “fire tower” although its really an observation deck that replaced an old one about a decade ago.

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Not much to look at but a lot to look from.

The grayish shapes of mountains all around give a sense of just how amazing the Cumberlands can be and just how much “plateau” might seem a bad name for hills that do stretch on in places but at times jump up and down like a rounded roller-coster track getting bluish and hazy into the distance on all sides, even stretching into a view of the far more famous Great Smokies. It’s one of the few places you can see all around you. I look forward to seeing it again throughout the year.
There are many ways to the fire tower.
November in the Cumberlands which is when I visited is what some people might call drab. No icicles, the colored leaves only on a few of the trees, few evergreen plants at least on these trails. But the glory is the ability to see not just at overlooks but also glimpses through the trees, both of what’s further up and also what’s below. Now in March you can still see those kind of glimpses.

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My sister Jessie at an overlook before the big one. Photo courtesy of Judith Roitman.

Just to give you a good general map including the distances of what I’ll describe next, here’s one. The trails all have at least some connection to them, so if you get lost missed your route, it’s good to know the closest route to your destination may not involve backtracking.
Of course, I your intrepid guide never get lost. Except this time and plenty of other times. But I’ll get around to getting lost when it happened.
I left with Yvonne, Mom, Dad, my sister Jessie and my dog Zeke on Black Friday.
All the routes, or at least most of the obvious ones, to the firetower begin at the old mac trailhead, near a picnic area complemented by a playground (complete with plastic drums) and a small pond.
From there begins the Old Mac trail with the North Old Mac trail splitting off to the right. That was the route we took. Like any mountain hike it’s not exactly for beginners although it’s not the worst mountain on earth in terms of difficulty either. We then turned right on Lookout Tower Trail and continued on to the tower itself.

I did get separated from the others and lost on the way back, accidentally ending up on Chimney Top Trail but was able to consult my phone in an odd spot of reception and head back down in the dim light on Spicewood Trail, then a small piece of the Judge Branch Trail back to to the entrance trail and the picnic area and playground. In general, making a loop gives the route some variety anyway. The total route is about 8.3 miles.

Ramsey Cascades


Imagine the spray of Ramsey Cascades on your face, hot from hiking in the summer. Imagine the water hitting the dark rocks in the tallest waterfall Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer before falling into a pool and a creek flowing down below.

I hope you did a good job imagining that. Because I don’t have a single photograph of it from my trip August 6 this year.

A combination of wanting to shoot videos along the way, which still need editing, and my phone GPS draining itself led me to have my phone completely dead by the time I got there. Sorry. There’s probably far more professional shots of it you can look at. Like the ones on this page. But as with anything else, it’s nothing like being there anyway.

Ramsey Cascades
Okay, so this is breaking with my original joke but here’s a public domain image from the National Park Service. Still a pale imitation of being there.

The waterfall is the highest waterfall accessible by trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s not the tallest in East Tennessee (Fall Creek Falls) and especially not the United States (a quick web search shows that to be disputed but probably in Hawaii), it doesn’t matter what records it sets or doesn’t set when sitting in front of it. Watching, listening, and feeling the waterfall was worth the thirsty August walk.

I bring this up because I sometimes see people from out west, especially the Pacific Northwest put down what feels to me like the grandeur of our little-old-grandmother-rounded mountains in favor of bigger ones with sometimes bigger landmarks. Someone in the comments on another website describing Ramsey Cascade posted a waterfall in Oregon, as if to say “Mine is bigger!” Such Freudian waterfall idiocy isn’t the game I’m playing here. Nor should it be your game.

This is where I am: Tennessee. I’m here to explore the wonders of my state before gathering up the time and money to go to other ones. And Ramsey Cascade is one of them. I encourage anyone else to do the same. Maybe the Great Smoky Mountains aren’t your park. Maybe they are. They are, however, themselves.

The route to Ramsey Cascades is not the hardest in the Smokies. However, to out of shape people such as me, the near constant uphill route to the falls made my feet feel tired the next day. It’s eight miles round trip, mostly uphill on the way back.

The trail follows and crosses various streams and heads through an old-growth forest with tall trees untouched by saws.

The area below the falls is more a wading spot than a swimming spot, although there appeared to be a deeper pool just below that, earlier on the trail. In general, though, I still recommend it as a summer hike because the cool heavenly-feeling mist from the falls is the best thing on a hot, sweating face. Granted, as winter rolls in, it will look spectacular frozen, as shown here.

While a decent crowd showed up the day I hiked, many of them connected to the Great Smoky Mountains Hiking and Adventure Group, Ramsey Cascades thrives because of its reputation, not its location. The location isn’t out of the way per se, but the first time I tried to head here, I thought I’d made a wrong turn.

The Greenbriar entrance is accessible from a road on Gatlinburg’s outskirts, as described in many of the links above. The entrance from Gatlinburg, however, is not obvious. It’s gravel, as is the parking area, which is unusual for main entrances to the park, resembling a driveway. The gravel road isn’t in too bad of shape though; it’s driveable with my secondhand 2009 Prius bought from my mother, so most people shouldn’t have any problem.