Friday, April 4, 2014

Surprise Snow at Fort Hill State Memorial

This past Sunday saw your blogger and a few botanical buddies in Dan Boone, Duane Hook, and Solomon Gamboa (be sure to click Solomon's name and check out his own fantastic blog!) have an early morning rendezvous at Fort Hill State Memorial in the unglaciated foothills of southern Highland county.  With the weather forecast calling for mostly clear skies and temperatures in the fifties, we all went to bed the night before with dreams of a prototypical early spring foray into the spectacular mature mixed mesophytic forests, monstrous trees, and limestone gorge of arguably our state's finest natural area.  Instead my accompaniment and I awoke and arrived to a surprise late season snowfall that left a couple inches covering the ground and just about every branch, limb and twig.

Friends Dan Boone, Duane Hook, and Solomon Gamboa walking past some impressive tuliptrees atop the fort's plateau

After the long and arduous winter Mother Nature has taken its sweet time waking up from, it didn't come as much of a surprise we'd see the white stuff again.  We couldn't complain too much though as the surrounding scenery was accented so perfectly with the fresh powder.  Little did we know just how memorable and one-of-a-kind these particular couple inches of snow would end up being.

Expansive wetland and buttonbush swamp atop the fort's plateau (photo credit: Duane Hook)

Fort Hill's significance not only lies in its diverse and intact ecosystems but in its natural history as well.  Over 2,000 years ago a culture of Native Americans known today as the Hopewell constructed massive earthworks throughout this region of the state in the forms of mounds, geometric shapes, and hilltop earthworks.  These ancient peoples utilized Fort Hill's naturally-occurring flat ridge top and enclosed/encircled the rim with an earthen wall ranging from 6 to 15 feet in height and 30 feet wide at its base.  Its circumference measures an impressive 8,600+ feet; that's over a mile and half and must have taken a long, long time to form with such limited tools.

Enormous old-growth tuliptree
old-growth beech, tuliptree, and red oak

We decided to get our blood pumping early and tackle the lung-buster of a jaunt to the top of the ridge some 400+ feet higher in elevation.  All along the upper slopes of the ridge and rim is an impressive display of old-growth tree specimens like red, white, and chestnut oaks; tuliptree; ash; and beech.  Photos on your computer screen could never even come close to relating the immensity and awe of some of the individual trees and deserve the respect of a physical visit.

Looking through the trees from the upper slopes of Fort Hill and out across the glaciated till plains

Fort Hill sits at the very edge of the Wisconsin glacier's southernmost advancement and as a result supplies some pretty spectacular views from its summit and upper slopes.  This particular view through the trees shows the flattened landscape of the till plains to the north and west.  Even 2,000 years later it's not hard to fathom what the indigenous cultures saw in Fort Hill in its intrinsic beauty and location.

White oaks among the snow
Early spring winter wonderland

Our path along the upper stretches of the ridge eventually found us entering a corridor of forest that experienced an unbelievable combination of atmospheric conditions unlike anything I'd ever seen before, at least to such an eloquent extent.

Dan standing in a dreamscape world of snow and ice

Here it was nearly the last day of March with our mission to find some early spring wildflowers finally unfurling their much anticipated petals and you'd have sworn it was still ice-locked January.  Friends and acquaintances who know Dan personally will also know he's not the biggest fan of snow, especially after the winter Ohio just crawled out of but not even he could argue with the beauty and unbelievable artistic design of it all.

Even more so than the photos of leviathan tree specimens, the video above pales in comparison to the sight and experiences of the landscape itself but it's certainly better than leaving it purely up to your imagination. For some reason the quality of the video plummets once you enlarge the window so I would suggest keeping it at the size presented on the blog for the best results even if the frame is rather small.

Wild turkey tracks
Perfectly accumulated snow

From the telltale sign of the unblemished snow on the trail and landscape, we were the first people to venture into Fort Hill that morning but we were far from the only signs of life.  Turkey tracks dotted the landscape in some parts with their signature three-toed footprints.

Duane walking towards the light...

Our hike started out under a uniformly gray and overcast sky but was quickly overrun with abundant sunshine that reflected off the snow in a brilliant fashion.  All four of us commented and agreed that none had ever seen an event or look quite like this before.  The surprises and rewards nature gives those who take the time to immerse themselves in her splendor is what has us come back time and time again.  By the time we were done with our four plus mile walkabout in the early afternoon, the temps had warmed into the upper forties and melted all the accumulated snow off the tree trunks and limbs and the most sun-exposed slopes.  In the few short hours this magical paradise of snow and ice existed, the four of us ended up being the only people to experience it and experience it we did.  I think I can speak for all of us that it will be something to fondly look back on for years and years to come.

Briar patch and snow equals art
What a brilliant blue sky!

It's amazing how something as trivial as snow could turn a typically intimidating and immense brier patch of greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) into one of the most artistic designs and patterns I've ever personally witnessed. No flake was wasted as each one solidly stuck exactly where it fell and built up to create such splendid ice crystal sculptures.  Almost equally pleasing was the contrast of the sharp blue sky and the dazzling white virgin snow.

Limestone gorge along Baker Fork (photo credit: Duane Hook)

The ever-warming temperatures accelerated the steady drip-drip-drip of melting snow on top of our heads as we made our way out of the winter wonderland utopia and down into the limestone gorge of Baker Fork, a tributary of nearby Ohio Brush Creek.  The gorge's sheer dolomite cliff faces and bluffs are home to an assortment of rare and unusual plant species such as Sullivant's coolwort (Sullivantia sullivantii), Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), snow trillium (Trillium nivale), and the incredibly rare Canby's mountain-lover (Paxistima canbyi).

Stunted and gnarled red cedars and chinkapin oaks lining the rim and gorge's walls

Upon receding into the gorge's depths the soils turn to a sweet alkaline composition and allow for calcareous appreciating species like chinkapin oak, blue ash, and red cedar to dominate.  Some of the stunted and gnarled chinkapin oaks that cling to existence along the dolomite bluffs and cliff faces hardly look their age as trees only six to seven inches in diameter have been aged to a couple centuries old.

Canby's mountain-lover (Paxistima canbyi)
Thick, leathery, evergreen leaves of the Paxistima

Fort Hill's most precious and rare botanical treasure also occurs on the thin-soild limestone bluffs of the gorge as the state endangered and uber-rarity Canby's mountain-lover (Paxistima canbyi).  This unusual member of the bittersweet family (Celastraceae) came to Ohio via the ancient northwest-flowing Teays River millions of years ago before its demise prior to the glacial events of the Pleistocene's ice ages.  The evergreen, trailing sub-shrub has continued to persist in relic tributary valleys of the Teays to this day where it's only known to occur here at Fort Hill and in a similar limestone bluff situation along another tributary of Ohio Brush Creek on the Edge of Appalachia further south.  Both populations are clonal colonies of great age and with any luck will continue to persist for the foreseeable future.

Your blogger photographing some snow-covered snow trillium along the gorge's bluffs  (photo credit: Duane Hook)

One of the biggest targets of our visit and hike was to see the early blooming and dainty snow trillium (Trillium nivale) known to grow in select spots along the gorge's bluffs.  True to their name, we found them in full flower despite the couple inches of overnight snow accumulated on top of them.

Snow trillium in the snow
Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)

Countless millennia of evolution and adaptation has allowed these charming and tiny wildflowers to survive spring's unpredictable weather and late blasts of snow and low temperatures.  If a couple inches were to truly do them any harm these wonders would have disappeared eons ago and not lasted to our present day and be able to lift the spirits of a weary, winter-logged botanist.

Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) emerging from their winter slumber

If snow trillium was a treat for the eyes, then the tender, freshly-emerged wild leek (Allium tricoccum) leaves were the equivalence for our noses and taste buds.  They didn't seem to mind the temporary return of winter and hopefully didn't mind a few tiresome hikers nibbling at their tastiness either.

By the time we returned back to the parking lot most of the snow had melted away and left a scene far different than we arrived to four or five hours earlier.  It was hard to believe we were in the same spot but that's the nature of the season's last ephemeral snows.  I, for one am in no rush for any more frozen precipitation and look forward to spring continuing to unfold.

A special thanks to my friend Duane who kindly lent me a camera battery when mine was discovered to be dead (always check your charge the night before no matter how sure you are that you're ok) and also for generously letting me use a few of his excellent photographs in this post!  Thanks, Duane!

1 comment:

  1. What an awesome fairyland! Amazing! I've never even seen a picture of a snow trillium. And those are some big trees too!