Early morning, the southern Appalachians are shrouded in mist. Wisps of clouds like torn blankets roam above, dragging sometimes over the tops of mountains and pierced by shafts of cathedral light that make a gray sky brilliant. It is early October, and the soft hills are painted with golds, greens, reds, oranges, and ochers.
I am following Katherine Medlock down a narrow forest path, walking stooped beneath a 20-foot rhododendron that is a tangle of gnarled sienna trunks topped with dark, evergreen leaves. She is guiding me into Kelly Ridge, near Hiawassee, one of the last roadless areas left in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia.
"The going is rough," Katherine had warned. She is an ecologist working for Georgia Forestwatch, an organization begun in 1986 to monitor forest plan changes effected by activists. Katherine is not yet 30, in jeans and leather hiking boots, her long brown hair tied back. "Well be bushwhacking cross-country."
I pick my way through the understory thicketaround a rhododendron with a trunk the circumference of my thigh. A few feet away a wild stream, running whitewater in places over a bed of rocks, scrambles downhill. "How will we not get lost?"
"For a while theres an old logging trail," Katherine says. "Well follow the stream up the cove."
We cross the creek, boulder to boulder, and enter the valley of Ramp Cove, named for the edible wild leeks that grow in secluded hollows, especially high-elevation north-facing coves like this one. When the Ice Age was ending, these valleys stayed much colder, retaining relict plant speciessuch as true hellebore, Dutchmans-breeches, and rampsknown from colder regions.
Everything is wet. Mist collects and drops off leaves, so that the moist, cool ground is carpeted with mosses, ferns, and violets. Fallen leaves, red maple and beech, collect teacups of water on the forest floor, and we pass a bank of fading maidenhair fern, dripping wet. From the dark-brown bank of Pleistocene earth on our left, water seeps, feeding the murmuring stream. Purple asters bloom.
On a map the 8,500 acres of Kelly Ridge form the shape of a raven. Located near Brasstown Bald, Georgias highest peak, it is composed of coves leading to high crests. Next to Kelly Ridge to the south lies Tray Mountain Wilderness, through which the Appalachian Trail passes. An abundance of salamanders are found at Kelly Ridge, including the hellbenderat up to 29 inches long a giant among its kind and known to live nearly 30 years in captivity. Black bears make their way here, as do flying squirrels, and ruffed grouse can be heard drumming their wings against logs.
We climb up and up, through cohosh and poison ivy, into the thick old hardwoods of the cove. The day is breezy and sometimes the autumn leaves sound like scratchy rain. I keep mistaking the traveling leaves for birds, hoping to see the Carolina chickadees that are calling all around. I get a good look at a hooded warbler, black necklace on a yellow flute.
"How could anyone want to put a road through here?" Katherine asks. "Or log this?" She points out chestnut stumps four feet across from a selective cut a century ago. One, so big it couldnt be hauled out, lies in the stream below. Chestnut resprouts, as we see around us in vivid gamboge, but before the tree gets to nut-bearing size, blight kills it, rendering the species functionally extinct. The deciduous forest is multilayered and multiaged, and here and there we see large trunks of old growth. We come upon two majestic buckeyes, knobbed with burls, both over 200 years old and requiring three people to encircle, and then an enormous northern red oak about the same age.
Twelve years ago the mountains of the Chattahoochee were thought not to contain old growth. It was Brent Martin, Georgia native and former executive director of Forestwatch, who began surveys that would locate the 200-acre stand of northern red oaks, reaching 300 years in age, and nearly 30 acres of old-growth pitch pine. Four to five thousand acres of old growth have been identified so far in the Chattahoochee, with 700 to 800 of that in Kelly Ridge.
"Ive walked Kelly Ridge more than any place in the world," Brent would tell me later. "The more you know every foot of a place, the more power you have in defending it."
For seven years Brent worked with the Forest Service, in meetings public and private, to protect two of the
Chattahoochees last roadless areas, Kelly Ridge and Mountaintown, near Ellijay. For both areas the Forest Service recommended wilderness status. When the draft forest-management plan was released in April 2003, however, protection for Kelly Ridge and Mountaintown had been erased. And now the Bush administration has revoked protection for roadless areas. "Theres been a shift in political ideology," Brent says.
For now, thanks to a lawsuit filed by Georgia Forestwatch and other groups, logging is forbidden on the Chattahoochee. An 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judge found the Forest Service in violation of its own mandate to look for endangered species before logging. "The Forest Service said it didnt have the money to do the monitoring," Katherine tells me. "The judge said, Then dont do the cutting."
At our feet, a ghostly saprophytic pinesap springs from humus. These plants grow on decomposing wood underground. Nearby, a huge fallen tree wraps the earth in its mossy disintegration.
"The trees here have had a chance to get old and die," Katherine says, then gazes at the tumbling stream. She explains how its food web depends on material that falls in, and how wood protects stream banks and provides habitat for fish and invertebrates with temporary dams. Guarding these waters from sediment and pollutants is what will keep the vulnerable hellbenders and wild rainbow trout alive in Swallow Creek below.
We hike upwards, the terrain ever steeper, through honey locusts, dogwoods, and sourwoods, until we are navigating the last steep incline of the ridge. The climbing is hard. I come upon a small patch of ginseng, sporting red autumn berries. " Sang," I call out, and admiring it, rest.
As a young college student in the early 1980s, I lived in these north Georgia hills, traveling ten-mile-an-hour mountain roads that have become four-lane swaths rolling through the Blue Ridge. Along one of these roads I once saw an Appalachian family in horse and wagon headed for town. I bought local applesvarieties like Arkansas black you cant find readily in storesfrom hillbilly stands, and filled water jugs at roadside springs. I searched for trilliums and trailing arbutus in these hills; near Amicalola Falls I camped for the first time. Everythings changedthe place that engendered the Foxfire books swarms with residential developments, fast-food restaurants, filling stations, and superstores.
Why do we all have to be so comfortable?
I turn to the slope again, determined to reach the ridge, and move zigzag up it, breathing furiously. I surge over the top and onto the flat spine of Kelly Ridge itself. Around me chestnut oaks grip hard against a dogged north wind. There is no road out, only a finger of wild stream born from the cove that fans out below.
Chattahoochee National Forest straddles the Appalachian Mountains in north Georgia, including Brasstown Baldat 4,784 feet the highest mountain in the state. The Appalachian Trail begins at Springer Mountain in the Chattahoochee, and traverses the forest for 79 miles.
Threats The U.S. Forest Service has proposed eliminating wilderness protection for roadless areas in the forest, leaving them at risk of logging as well as harm from off-road vehicles.
More Information Contact Chattahoochee National Forest, 1755 Cleveland Hwy., Gainesville, GA 30501; (770) 297-3000; or go to www.fs.fed.us/conf. For information on protecting roadless areas, contact Georgia Forestwatch, 15 Tower Rd., Ellijay, GA 30540; (706) 635-8733; www.gafw.org.
Janisse Ray is author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt (Milkweed Editions, 2000 and 2003). She is Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.