It’s cold again. I don’t have to get out from under the covers to know this. I can see our breath as we yawn and stretch and begin to talk of coffee. I just wasn’t as mentally prepared as I told myself I was when we were leaving the summer like conditions of Florida. It all feels very familiar, the leafless and seemingly lifeless trees, the hands so cold it hurts. We drove from summer back into winter since ten days into it spring has yet to show. But there it is again, the pop of red from out of the woods. We started seeing this tree all the way back in Louisiana, up into middle Mississippi and along the Florida panhandle. Try as we might to get an up close look we couldn’t seem to find a spot where the trees red leaves were close enough to the ground to really see. We just looked in vain at the red fluttering above our heads. A tree that hasn’t let go of it’s red autumn leaves. Are they leaves?
Last December on a trip to Yosemite Tim and I managed to get every passerby curious as to what we were looking at in the grass along the path. We had to sheepishly tell them it was fungus that had grown off a piece of feces. It looked like a giant caterpillar. This is how we “generalists” work. From watching a common gray squirrel to going out on a rainy day hike to see California newts, we find it all pretty interesting and we’re willing to seek it out.
We’ve become visitor center connoisseurs. If you go to a National Park and they have more than one I recommend hitting them all up if possible. Each has their own personality and often unique information about that particular locale of the park. The Sugarlands visitor and park headquarters of the Great Smokey National Park has wonderful displays from A Naturalists Notebook written by Robert G. Johnsson and illustrated by John D. Dawson complimented by taxidermy displays and believable fake versions of some plants and flowers. We liked it so much we went back to try and take in as much as possible. We found out there that Great Smokies National Park is the salamander capital of the world. There are over 30 different species of salamander within the park and several are endemic. Turns out the Smokies are a temperate rain forest. The higher elevations get up to 85 inches of rain a year and the lower around 55. With the astounding amount of rhododendrons, hemlocks and firs parts of the park felt more like the Pacific Northwest. Salamanders are amphibians so moisture is a necessity. Many salamanders are lungless and breathe through their skin. They need good clean water and air which is becoming more compromised with all the nearby coal power plants. For now though the estimated numbers are impressive.
The hunt was on! I figured with our successful California Newt experiences this should be cake. We looked under rocks and logs along streams and found many different caddisfly larvae tubes. We looked in a swamp where we found thousands of tad poles and a few millipedes. Tim began pawing at punky wood much like a bear clawing for grubs. We even saw some grubs. After a few days of this I began to think that we’d not see one after all. Then I thought about how my friend’s daughter Juniper had looked under rocks along the rocky shore back in San Diego and in doing so found a brittle star. I looked back at the stream we had just crossed and found a calmer run where a rock was just so that there was a little cave under it. When I pulled it up some silt spun around in the depression and it took a second to realize what I was looking at. I called Tim over and there it was our first of many found salamander! It was tiny, no bigger than my pinky, dark with white gills. It was all very exciting and each subsequent find no less so.
As for the trees with the stubborn red leaves, we got up close to that too. Turns out it’s the red maple and what we had been seeing was the fruit, or samara, that develop first before leaves or flowers in an effort to be ready to drop into nearby water ways when they are their highest in late spring. The red maple is actually quite common in the eastern states and has become more so with the loss of oaks and pines.
I may not always get to see the neat creatures and plants I seek but I get great joy out of the act of looking. Much like playing a game. As long as the game is fun it doesn’t matter if I win or lose. Sure I’ll gloat like the best of them and high five my teammates just like I high fived Tim, my ultimate teammate, on our successful Great Smokey Mountain salamander hunt.