We finished off summer camp season by heading up the mountain and exploring the habitats of Mount Rogers with a basecamp at the Scales on Pine Mountain. Unfortunately we timed it with a massive system that brought three days of solid rain!!
After picking up the crew, the caravan of 4x4's crawled up the trail battling sheets of rain and a boulder covered road. When we arrived at the top 45 minutes later, it became abundantly clear that the rain had set in and our first task was to build some shelter. We all slipped on rain gear and started laying out our 16' wooden poles, making lashings and marking the corners of our tent shelter. A short time later we proudly huddled under our canvas tarp to get out of the rain!
The first exploration of the trip was to check out the headwaters of Big Wilson Creek. The kids put on their wetsuits at camp since it was raining and down the trail we went. Fellow campers at Scales gave us some strange looks for sporting snorkel masks on top of the mountain! The kids insisted on getting to some holes deep enough to swim in so we hiked downstream until we came to a large plunge pool that was over six feet deep. The water was already dingy from the rain so observation was limited but the kids explored the edges of the pool and the falls. We tried our hand at seining for fish and came up with a small wild rainbow trout in the bubbles of a water fall. Max found an old beat up fly that still had monofilament attached to the hook and sure enough Zeke pulled out a small native drifting it through the current by hand! We also found lots of crayfish and even one that was munching on the head of a salamander. On the hike back we took a short detour to check out the Fraiser Fir Seed Plot and the Appalachian Bog of Sullivan Swamp. Lisa's ever delicious Walking Tacos were waiting for us at camp upon return. (Day 1: 3 miles)
Day 2. The camp awoke to heavy rains and but by 10am it had transitioned to a drizzle and then to a continuous cloud mist. After studying the maps the campers packed their day packs and slipped on rain gear and out into the weather we went. From the Scales basecamp we hiked west across the Southern Appalachian Shrub Balds of Pine Mountain and into Lewis Fork Wilderness in search of natural wonders. Even though the mist was thick, butterflies surfaced on multiple occasions including common wood nymphs and american coppers. During our snack break Max was convinced he saw a large black animal sauntering through the woods, so out came the binoculars and we went in hot pursuit hoping for a glimpse at a black bear. About a hundred yards away we found our subject, a massive black dog being put back on the leash by some hikers.
Entering Lewis Fork the forest canopy protected us from the rain pouring down. While we worked our way deeper into the woods we found a huge black-bellied salamander, lots of red-backed salamanders, a dusky species and and one tiny pygmy salamander along the trails. Hiking through the High Elevation Cove Forest we came across a grove of massive red spruce trees that warrant future measurement for a possible state record! Nearing the end of the forest trail we became enchanted by what appeared to be a roar of wind from the ridge but upon further inspection we found a rather large creek running under the boulder field we were crossing. The rocks had a typical forest growing on top of it, so very disguised until you found an opening between the rocks to peer into. Returning to camp we picked a gallon of blackberries for the following night's dessert. (Day 2: 8 miles)
As the cooks prepped for a dutch oven lasagna dinner we did journal illustrations of observations along the trail. That evening we were joined by Christy and Ed from Friends of Mount Rogers who had sponsored four scholarship kids to the camp! The rain continued coming down so we circled under our shelter and got out the flint knapping kits. After giving a whack at some local rhyolite we had found along the trail, we moved on to more workable chert to produce some arrowheads with antler billets. As night fell it was cold and wet, so we built a small charcoal fire in the middle of our shelter and got out a deck of cards to play the ever fun game of assassin.
Day 3: We kicked off the following morning with wild blueberry pancakes and bacon. After reviewing the maps, we packed our daypacks and set off for the highest point in Virginia: Mount Rogers. Throughout the day we went from hot, to drenched, to cold, to hot again three times! In between the waves of rain butterflies abounded and the birds sang their bright songs. In one short cycle the kids caught three species of fritillary: Meadow, Variegated and Aphrodite! Other butterflies included common wood nymph, red-spotted purple, pearl crescent, eastern-tailed blue, american copper, clouded sulphur and eastern tiger-swallowtail.
As we ascended the trail the spruce-fir dome of Mount Rogers loomed in the clouds ahead. After climbing on some outcrops we entered into the red spruce and fraiser fir zone at around 5,400' in elevation. The trail was wet and muddy and alternated between meadows, laurel thickets and spruce trees. Along the way we spotted high elevation breeding birds including golden-crowned kinglets, dark-eyed juncos, magnolia warbler, black-capped chickadee, cedar waxwings, common ravens, common yellowthroat, hairy woodpecker and heard the enchanting songs of the hermit thrush and veery. The magnolia warbler was especially cooperative, gleaning insects from the blackberries only a few feet away. Over Wilburn Ridge we spotted a soaring broad-winged hawk. Entering the enchanting spruce forest near the peak astounded all of the hikers.
Although we did not need any more emphasis, the moss laden branches illustrated just how wet it is at 5,729' in elevation. Happy with their accomplishment of reaching the highest point in Virginia, the kids parked it for a snack, mended blisters and soaked up the dense forest. The return hike featured the standard pony fare and a report of a black bear from hikers heading the other way. With endlessly wet feet and many miles behind us we stopped frequently to patch up blisters on worn feet. Returning to camp the kids beamed with the accomplishment of having the highest peak of Virginia in their bag! (Day 3: 10 miles)
At basecamp we did a fire building session for coals to cook our dutch oven blackberry cobbler. (I don't recall what was for dinner...) While the fire cooked down we finished some arrowheads and made cordage from dried dogs bane. After dinner wrapped up we kicked up a game of ultimate frisbee until darkness prohibited us to continue. The last evening of the camp finally brought crystal clear skies. We set up the spotting scope and watched the moon fall behind the ridge, counted the moons of Jupiter and looked in awe at the rings of Saturn. As we sat around the campfire a neighboring cowboy wailed a sad trail tune and the coyotes took up chorus on the surrounding ridge tops. The camper's eyes got as wide and bright as the stars above. Resisting sleep hour, the kids talked us into another round of assassin, but this time we played with a deck of bird cards with the menacing golden-crowned kinglet as the killer!
Day 4: The last morning we chowed on a Mountain Man Breakfast (hash browns, bacon, eggs and cheese in the dutch oven) then compiled a comprehensive species list of the camp on the whiteboard and in journals: all the birds, butterflies, mammals, salamanders, fish, insects, rocks and habitats we visited! The kids broke camp and we headed down the mountain in our 4x4 caravan to conclude one awesome year of Blue Ridge Discovery Center Summer Camps!
Many thanks to the Friends of Mount Rogers for making this camp happen by providing four vital scholarships. Their support allowed a group of local kids to explore one of the most amazing habitats in the world that just happens to be right in their backyards. Also thank you to the US Forest Service for allowing us to explore these fantastic lands!