Journey into a Mountain Treasure

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A New Member Perspective By: Steve Dawdy

The edge of a National Forest is an interesting place. A border, it seems, between familiarity and mystery, between human frailty and nature’s power. A desolate country road and a lonely cabin to one side were oddly reassuring, while to our back an immense stand of green giants was at once intimidating and majestic. Fussing over the weight of our packs and how much water to carry in seemed more affirming than glancing up that closed Forest Service road that would take us hours into a seldom visited sanctuary. The forest seemed to be offering an invitation, though we weren’t entirely sure we were worthy. But we silently promised to tread lightly as we stepped around the gate. And so began our day hike to the center of a Georgia Mountain Treasure.

The Anderson Creek tract lies in the southwest corner of the Southern Blue Ridge cluster of Georgia Mountain Treasures. The tract encompasses 5,847 acres, about 9 square miles from east of Ellijay to near Springer Mountain, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail Approach Trail and a fair amount of old growth. It is the southernmost tract of contiguous protected habitat in the Appalachians. Its importance as a corridor for migrating wildlife, particularly as climate change brings more species northward, cannot be overstated. Our party was led by Jess Riddle, Executive Director, and Andrew Linker, Outreach Coordinator. There were just a few in the group, limited by a pandemic. We were pleased to be invited because the forest is near our own property and we could envision advocating for the forest near us in whatever way we could.

A ForestWatch member pauses to examine an unnamed tributary
of Anderson Creek that ATVs used to ride up and down.

What we didn’t realize is that we were about to be introduced to an ecology that can be truly realized only by reaching in and touching it with all your senses. Our leaders provided frequent mini-lessons, efficiently sampling our complex surroundings, and peppering us with facts and figures that heightened our appreciation for the diversity and biological concert we were attending. Hardwoods and softwoods, scrubs, wildflowers, ferns and a few unwanted intruders, those plants that lack the historical smarts to get along with their neighbors.

It was overwhelming, but we didn’t mind, and neither did the forest. Between lessons we walked, and walked, deeper and deeper. The walk was long but only mildly strenuous as we stayed on the gradually ascending old road. This allowed us to focus on our surroundings instead of our lungs. The ecological show appeared to be expanding as we progressed. The ridges and coves became more mysterious, the trickling streams more unique, and the trees more individual and strangely personal. A complex interplay unfolded around us. The sunlight streaming through the canopy, the layers of shade on the forest floor, the occasional attention-demanding wildflower, and the trees, the incredibly varied and uncountable trees, each standing alone yet intertwined in mutuality.

The silence of the forest is profound and serves to amplify the sudden solo performance of an unseen warbler. The freshness of the air and the fragrances could never be duplicated in a bottle. Everything appeared to be working, yet without the commotion that typifies our human ways. A certain familiarity with the surroundings began to build.  It felt like being introduced to 1,000 people all at once, and gradually realizing that you have been friends for years, you just didn’t recognize them at first. Indeed, the forest was wrapping itself around us, physically and emotionally. It was planting itself in our hearts.

Our party pauses to discuss forest issues and listen to the
birds serenading us.

We stopped for lunch and surveyed a former recreational site ravaged 20 years prior by off-road vehicles. We learned about the important work of Georgia ForestWatch that was instrumental in closing the area to such activity, allowing the forest to heal.  As we progressed to our destination, we learned about cherished hemlock stands, and saw the destructive fury of a tiny bug and the benefits of scientific intervention. We paused in a particularly picturesque pocket as the road curved sharply. To our left, a steep slope that some chose to ascend to glimpse deeper into the treasure. To our right, a lush valley beneath an immense canopy. We had arrived at the center.  We rested, and lingered, content to simply be in the presence of something that cannot really be described. Only in afterthought did we realize that we were experiencing something beyond a fun day hike in the woods; we were experiencing a relationship with a mountain treasure. The return hike was simple and lighthearted, and downhill! The day had grown long, and distant thunder reminded us of the forecast. The luck of our timing became real as we climbed into our vehicles. The rain came, heavy and hard. The forest filled with mist; the leaves clapped loudly as the huge drops poured down. The agenda had changed. It was time for water, that precious resource the forest manages. The forest took on a serious appearance, darker, distant, and preoccupied. The forest was busy. It had work to do. We were not really needed there.

Title: Journey into a Mountain Treasure, A New Member Perspective
By: Steve Dawdy
Photos: Sandee Dawdy