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Undiscovered Rhododendrons

By Erik Hogan

There is a time frame in the Spring when rhododendrons bloom high in the Blueridge Mountains. I see other photographers’ images of these flowers close up with a background of boundless mountains to the horizon, dressed in atmosphere and brilliant angled light. These photos speak to my soul.

Last Spring flew by and any opportunity to explore the mountains vanished. I’ve waited and planned through this winter, trying to find the right timing for a trip. It is now early May and photographers are beginning to share rhododendron photos from this year. The explosion of social media and location sharing has resulted in popular destinations overrun with visitors. The Middle Prong Wilderness in Western North Carolina would be my destination. It is a less renowned area, possibly more wild, and my mid week overnight trip will hopefully give me solitude.

Wilderness carries the allure of pristine natural areas and unrestricted possibilities. There is also uncertainty, and a level of fear. Trails are not marked with blazes or signage. Cell phone coverage, as an emergency life line, is very limited if available at all. The risks define treks in the wilderness as true adventure, the rewards being striking mountainous views, reverential seclusion, and rhododendrons. These benefits must be earned through effort. They cannot be replicated in tamer environments. The feeling of wilderness can be shared through photography, but experience is required to integrate it into one’s being.

I am somewhat prepared for this. It is my first backpacking trip of the year and only an overnight journey, which gives me some mental comfort. While not outwardly scared, bears concern me. It should be the time of year when they roam the hills with cubs, ravenous after hibernation. I believe I can manage an encounter on the trail, but I carry food and at some point I will have to sleep. A heavy duty plastic bear canister is the recommended precaution, but these have significant hindrances. They are very difficult to fit in a pack. They may keep bears out of the food, but nothing prevents a bear from carrying it away or rolling it down the mountain. My method on this trip is to carry my provisions in a Kevlar bag, an Ursack, that I can hoist into a tree, away from my camp.

Every description I read of the area mentions unmarked trails, nearly overgrown with brambles and brush. I have a good map of the area and a reliable compass. My plan is to roughly estimate distance and use terrain association on the map, relating contour lines on paper to the land I see and feel in order to approximately determine my location. I have my phone with me, but don’t have any premium GPS apps that allow for off line use.

I arrive at the trailhead for the Mountains to Sea trail and am immediately struck by another challenge. The wind is frigid cold. I was considering wearing shorts on this trip, but dressed and packed for the cold as a precaution. The ‘just in case’ just became real. This trail in the Middle Prong Wilderness is rough. Roots and rocks and water make steps precarious. In most places, though un-blazed, it is fairly easy to locate and follow. Terrain association is much more difficult. Here the path is heavily wooded and the surrounding hills and mountains are often not visible. The intersecting Green Mountain Trail leads north from a saddle at the foot of Mt Harding. I reach what I believe to be this place, but it is an area that the path seemed to dissipate in the soft spongy ground of a spruce forest. I miss the intersection and proceed about a quarter mile beyond when I sense I have left the saddle. Turning back, I try to follow the Mountains to Sea trail in reverse, but instead find myself of the Green Mountain Trail heading north.

Am I lost? Being alone here, already miles from any road, is a very precarious feeling. I know that with cautious exploration I can find the Mountain to Sea trail again. I know what this saddle, where the intersection should be, looks like for the return trip. Confident I have found the Green Mountain Trail, I press on.

It is fairly easy to terrain associate on this trail, as it runs directly north along a clear ridge line. Progress is steady but slow as the elevation rises and I frequently have to force myself through a netting of dormant blueberry thickets and brambles. Dramatic views of the mountains in the distance are cluttered with the undergrowth. It is May 3, but spring has not yet arrived at elevation. Here is still the season of brown and gray. A few trillium decorate the edges of the trail, but rhododendrons are not to be found. Painfully clear skies stretch above me with an icy wind battering the west face of the ridge and the rippled mountainous horizons frustrated by sticks and twigs.

I arrive at the summit of Green Knob, just below 6000 ft high, in the late afternoon. Behind me, just down from the top, vistas of mountains recede to the south. To the east stands Sam Knob, and beyond that Black Balsam and Mt Tennent, where I have camped in the past. A small established campsite with a grassy patch under an old fir tree makes for an easy tent set up in the warm afternoon sunshine. An unused collection of gathered firewood is staged beside a rock fire ring, which seems like a welcome gift from the land.

The peak and ridge are forested without any gaps on the western side. The sun sinks low and the air quickly grows colder. I photograph the fading light on the mountains, but there are no views of this sunset. I light a fire. The nearly full moon begins its almost imperceptible rise to the heavens as I sit watching, wrapped in the enormity of empty silence.

I wake up early the next morning to the brightest moonlight still illuminating my tent. The condensation inside had frozen into ice crystals on the fabric. I begrudgingly will myself to begin exiting my sleeping bag. No bears had bothered me during the night and my food bag, lifted to a tree branch about 50 yards from the tent, is still intact. My first priority is coffee, which is an agonizingly slow process in the below freezing temperature. I then trudge across the crunchy ground and make plans for setting up my camera according to where the rotation of the earth would reveal the sun today. By the time the moment comes the sky is again disappointingly clear. I photograph the best light I can find, pack up my camp, and head back.

It saddens me that I don’t know just when the rhododendrons bloom at elevation in the Appalachians and that my daily life is too far removed from the mountains to know current conditions there. Exploration is a learning evolution. Sometimes we gain more from a failure than the achievement. This trip challenged my courage, toughness, and creativity. My insight into all has grown as a result. I didn’t find what I came for, but found what I didn’t realize that I needed. I am fulfilled by having learned a bit more about this land that I love. The risk and adventure are worthy pursuits in themselves, essential for authenticating Art and Soul.

Erik Hogan is a photographer who primarily shoots landscape, wilderness, and nature scenes in the Athens area.

Follow on Instagram @erikhoganphotography Erik's sketchbook includes a look behind the scenes, with an option to purchase a limited number of prints through the link in his bio. htttps://erikhoganphotography.com.

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