old house in Tennessee.
I'll say right off that this isn't a public trail. It's a trail that runs through a piece of property we owned for a bit. I include it here because it remains my favorite trail of all time.
Andra and I built this trail, with some help from my friend Mike Mendez, in the ~7 acres of woods behind our house as a means to easily access the Collins River, which is about 500 ft west of, and 150' below, the house. When we moved in there was no simple access to the river, and the first time I tried walking down to the bank upon arriving at the house, I fell on my ass and slid 10 feet down smooth limestone before grabbing hold of some herbaceous vegetation to arrest my fall. Over the course of 4 months in 2010, we hacked a passable route through the woods, involving some switchbacks, rock steps and a wooden bridge over the gulley. I walk it twice virtually every day with dogs, before and after work, and when the weather is fair, Andra and Ada come along. The topography of our place is actually fairly lucky, in that we have on our place one of the infrequent gulleys that forms a valley all the way to the river, cutting through the steep limestone cliff bands that typically line this side of the river. I suspect it would be nearly impossible for any of our neighbors to get down to the rwater from their house without climbing gear, so we are fortunate to have a natural passage to the water that needed only minor excavation to make the walk a leisurely stroll.
The Collins River starts high up on the Cumberland Plateau in Grundy County, the county just south of Warren County where we live. The Collins is a large tributary of the Caney Fork River, which it meets at Great Falls Lake, which in turn flows into the Cumberland River that runs through Nashville on its way to the Tennessee River. The trail runs down to a section of the Collins River that is about 60 feet wide, and runs around 250 cfs in the summer, 500 cfs in the winter. A big storm just last month pushed the flow to over 12,000 cfs, and the big Nashville flood of May 2010 was preceded by a flow of over 20,000 cfs at the guaging station about 5 miles upriver. We see giant logs high up on the banks that were deposited by that flood, though we were not living here at the time. In the summer, the river is shallow enough to wade without getting my naval wet, and warm enough to do it without waders. The bottom of the river is rocky and rough, and can be tricky to negotiate when the water is too murky to see the bottom, so it's lucky that usually the water is crystal-clear. Red eye bass and crappie inhabit the waters, and on many occasions, we've caught lots of fish. I've never seen any, but champion-size muskie also prowl these waters. One guy caught a 42-inch muskie just a few miles upriver this summer.
Halfway to the river, a spring flows out from the limesone cliff and drops water in a thin veil over a carpet of moss and ferns about 10 feet down to a jumble of rocks below, where it sinks back into the ground among ferns and moss, and is gone. About 150 feet away, near the middle of the river, there's always a stream of cold water issuing forth from the rocky river bottom, keenly felt when wading in shorts, and I suspect this is the final outlet of that spring water. In the driest depths of summer, the water from the spring slowed to a trickle, but never stopped. As winter has come on, the falls has expanded to a width of about 20 feet, with an 8-foot gap in the middle. This effusion of cold groundwater acts like an air conditioner for the little gulley all summer, and the cold air coming out of the depths is always refreshing. There's a hole in the cliff near the bottom that must lead to some network of underground caves, as there's always a cold wind blowing out of it, enough to cause the dangling fern fronds to dance back and forth even when the air outside is dead-calm. In cold weather, the constant temperature is warmer than the surrounding air, and thus steams as it issues forth from the rock, even as the water below stretches out into white icicles.
Not all is perfection. Poison ivy has claimed these woods as its own, and I waged an all-out war on this plant for weeks in the summer. Inately, I find the plant pleaseant to look at, and interesting when it sets fruit in the fall. However, the reaction it evokes when I touch it is intolerable, made worse by the fact that the itch lasts for weeks. The dogs bring it in the house on their fur after they've run the woods, and it's all too easy to brush up against it while walking. So, I went to work to eradicate it. I bought a large jug of Round-Up concentrate, and plyed the forest in a systematic grid, spraying every last leaf I could find. It was especially thick by the river bank, where the soil stayed moist all year, but it was present at low levels everywhere you cared to look. Woody vines, thick as my wrist, adhered to every tenth tree, supporting a massive canopy of itchiness up high in the trees, wherefrom it could disseminate seed far and wide. These I chopped with a hatchet at ground level before spraying the cut surface with a liberal mix of Round-Up. Every few weeks I'd rework the land, river to the road, sprayer in hand with rubber gloves, boots and goggles, searching for plants that I'd missed or not sprayed well enough. After 3 applications, I could find no more poison ivy present, but I figured it would come back each spring for many years before I completely rid the forest of it. Similarly, I show no mercy to green briar, though I hold it in higher esteem than poison ivy. Still, those sharp thorns snag any fabric or skin that comes within a foot, and I've shed plenty of blood from deep scratches after an unwary step through the thickets. Thus, with pruners and spray, I've put the hurt on the green briar too. What shade-loving species will come to take these plants place? Who knows? I hope it will be the interesting mayflower, or perhaps ferns in the shadier spot. But it can hardly be anything worse than poison ivy or green briar.
The forest that our trail threads a path through is native eastern hardwood, with spectacular diversity. I've catalogued 43 native tree species and, with Andra's help, located and mapped what I believe are the largest diameter specimens of each species (I've not measured heights of the trees, yet, but that project is in the works: Mike Weigand and I measured a northern red oak at 103' tall). The largest tree we have is a tuliptree with a diameter of 34.7 inches, followed by a 28-inch northern red oak, a 26-inch scarlet oak, a 25-inch white oak, a 24-inch southern red oak and a 24-inch post oak. There are lots of other big trees, but no species other than these has any specimen exceeding 2 feet in diameter. My survey of the woods in the fall yielded a density of 506 trees >3" circumference (breast height)/acre, with an average tree diameter at breast height of 16" (again, discounting saplings <3" in diameter). The previous owner said the forest hadn't been logged in 80 years, so I guess that's the size trees grow to in 8 decades. To help the big trees along, I spent time thinning out saplings in the areas of thickest growth. Some slopes near the gullies had dozens of saplings each square foot, mostly sugar maple. Such a tangle of saplings can produce nothing but a thicket of stunted, mishshapen trees, so I spent many an evening hour snipping through the smallest of them, leaving the larger saplings plenty of room to stretch out and grow faster. It was during one of these clipping sessions, crabwalking amongst the thick growth so I could snip off saplings at ground level, that I nearly put my hand into the camouflaged coil of a copperhead. Luckily I saw him in time to avoid a bite!
There are hundreds of brown and orange toads, leopard frogs and salamanders that stalk the undergrowth. White tail deer pass through, but rarely, and run like hell when they sense I'm around, crashing and snorting through the woods. Possums lurk about, usually at night, and probably racooons, though I've never seen the latter. Gray squirrels fling themselves from branch to branch high in the canopy, but I'm surprised there are so few of them, given the billions of acorns, hickory nuts, pine nuts and beech nuts lying around. I personally know guys who squirrel hunt, so that may explain why numbers are lower around here than other urban places I've lived. Coyotes surely charge through the woods, though I've only seen them on the neighbor's place, or heard them in pastures down the road at night as they yip and chatter under a full moon. Stray cats and dogs slink through frequently, to the everlasting annoyance of Henry and Makenzie, who froth and boil when they see such interlopers out the front window. River otters ply the water, and I've been lucky enough to see one within 10 ft, in addition to seeing their little heads part the water in a V from afar. I've seen teeth marks on the bark of downed trees in the river, which seems to indicate beaver, though I've seen no evidence they are felling trees or building dams anywhere around. Perhaps the teeth marks are only the work of the numerous muskrat, several of whom have built a den on the shore near the terminus of my trail. Bats flitter about the woods on summer evenings, and insects of all sorts thump into the back of the house when it is lit up. When the house is dark, the woods come alive with thousands of fireflies floating under the humid canopy. Hundreds of small ringneck snakes slither around, seemingly fashioning a home under every rock and log in the forest, and though I know there must be legions of other snakes around, I've only seen a black racer and a beautiful adult copperhead, the latter much closer than I would have preferred.
When the rains come, the gulleys are violent torrents of brown water, and such velocity rips soil and rock from the roots of the trees. Concerned about such obvious soil loss, I lodged fallen trees and nearby rocks into the gullies to try to stem the flow. But the power of the water was immense, and one storm took out 12 of the 13 wooden and rock dams I had created. Only one dam held, by virtue of a foot-thick log I'd wedged upstream of two massive beech trees. Upstream of this log I'd stacked all matter of rock, logs and brush dragged over from the adjacent forest. The resulting dam was about 2 feet high, and I fancied it would slow the water down as the rainfall sluiced through the branches and rocks. Instead, when the big storm came, the dam silted up to the top, so that the depth of the gulley for 10 feet upstream of that dam increased by 2.5 feet in a matter of hours.
The trail to the river is
complete, mostly, though there are some rocks yet to be pushed into place
to keep erosion to a minimum. Though it's only 1/4 mile roundtrip, the
3-4 miles that accumulates each week on the thing adds up to make it the
highest source of hiking mileage I get these days. I'm eager to expand,
though. The next trail is likely to be a spur trail that will head up to
the high point of the land and over to a rock outcropping that overlooks
the river far below, a loop that should easily double the current length.
There's never any excuse to be bored here.
UPDATED JUNE 2011: New job in Wyoming, had to move, had to sell. Took my last trip down this trail on a calm, warm June evening around 5PM, the best time of day to hike it. Sure hard to leave something like this behind. Instantly my goal in life has become to somehow recover something similar to what I've just sold.
Aldo Leopold, in the latter pages of A Sand County Almanac, described the fifth and final component of his Conservation Ethic: "the sense of husbandry. It is unknown to the outdoorsman who works for conservation with his vote rather than with his hands. It is realized only when some art of management is applied to land by a person of perception. That is to say, its enjoyment is reserved for landholders too poor to buy their sport, and for administrators with a sharp eye and an ecological mind. The tourist who buys access to his scernery misses it altogether; " I think I can relate to this. Though only 7 acres in size, this little chunk of Tennessee brought more happiness than all other public trails in the National Forests and National Parks combined.