From Poison to Pancakes: DeSoto Plant ID Hike

I hope there’s a statute of limitations for attempted murder, because I’m about to confess, and implicate my sister.  The intended victim was my other sister, the baby sibling of our family.  We were elementary school-aged kids, probably around 9-10 years old, and our younger sister had annoyed us (probably unintentionally) in some way.   I had heard that the berries of the poke (or poke sallet) plant were poisonous, so we tricked our younger sister into eating one, then gleefully told her she was going to die.  This had the expected result of throwing her into a tearful panic, but ultimately had an unexpected consequence.  Our intended victim was unharmed, but her flight and bawling accusation to our mother resulted in we would-be poisoners making a trip to the lilac bush to each select a switch, which was then heartily applied to our backsides.  I learned my lesson — to this day, I won’t have a lilac bush on my property.

So you can imagine my unease when Robert Wilson, our guide on a recent plant ID hike at DeSoto State Park, popped a poke berry in his mouth while leading our tour.  He explained that yes, poke berries are poisonous, as are the mature leaves, stems, and roots of the pokeweed plant, but some herbal medicine practitioners say that a berry a day is a good anti-inflammatory.  Robert mentioned that a recent study indicated you would have to eat “pounds” of berries to receive a fatal dose.  He was also very careful to say that people should do their own research, because opinions vary about how much, if any, can be eaten safely.  By the way, Robert was apparently unharmed.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that DeSoto State Park does a terrific job of providing programs for its guests.  I decided to drive up one morning while Ruth was out of town to attend a free plant ID hike.  Robert Wilson is a concessionaire for the park, and provides various guided walks and outdoors skills workshops, some for a modest fee.  Robert is an interesting guy — he runs Seven Pines Survival, LLC, a company which provides outdoor education, bushcraft, and survival skills programs for DeSoto, Floyd State Park in Georgia, and the Jackson State University Field School in the Little River Canyon.

Our hike started at the Country Store in DeSoto, and a group of around 20 people of all ages (including babies in knapsacks) and 5 or so dogs of various sizes assembled.  Robert introduced himself, told us the hike would be a short one and laid out the general plan.  Our route started on the Red trail behind the store, where we then got on the boardwalk to Azalea Cascades, then took a branch of the Orange trail to the campground, and finished the loop with the Gold trail back to the store.  I didn’t bring the GPS, but I’d say the loop was around 1 mile, over mostly easy terrain.  Robert guessed it would take about 1.5 hours, and he hoped to identify 20-40 plants along the way, but thought with the large size of the group he’d probably identify about 30 or so.

Well, he was an overachiever, as it turns out.  I noted every plant he pointed out, and had 42 on my list at the end of the hike.  Some were old familiar favorites, such as false Solomon’s seal, American holly, white oak, mountain laurel, Joe Pye weed, persimmon, and prickly pear.

 

Others were new to me: puttyroot, sweet birch, usnea, cross vine, and pineapple weed.  Still others were known to me by a different name: squaw vine (aka partridgeberry) and winter huckleberry (aka sparkleberry).

 

Robert is known as the “Traveling Herbalist,” and this added a unique dimension to the hike, as most of the plants he pointed out are used in herbal medicine.  He has special permission from the park to help the guests experience the plants in a multi-sensory way — that is, we looked at, touched, smelled, and even tasted a few specimens along the way.  It was fun to smell the aromatic oils in dog fennel (aka summer cedar), pineapple weed (crushed leaves smell like pineapple), and sweet birch (smells like root beer).  We tasted sourwood leaves (guess how they tasted?) and sweet birch, which despite its root beer smell is actually minty when tasted.  Old-timers often used sweet birch as a natural toothbrush.

 

Robert also had a seemingly-endless supply of information about plant ID tips and backcountry uses.  Dog fennel, for instance, makes a pretty good bug repellent if reapplied every couple of hours.  Pine tar can help relieve the itch from poison ivy.  Sweetshrub flowers, when crushed, smell like strawberries.  When Virginia pines die, the sap migrates to the core of the tree, where this wood makes superior fire starters.  Usnea is not only a good antibiotic; it also serves as an indicator of air quality (the longer the strands, the better the air).

Some of his tips could be real lifesavers.  For instance, in one area he noted cross vines on one side of the trail and yellow jessamine on the other.  Both are vines that have opposite leaves, usually in pairs, and the flowers are similar, but cross vine is harmless and makes a good tea, while jessamine is poisonous.  A good differentiator is the base of the leaves — in cross vines, the leaf base is heart shaped, but in jessamine it just tapers into the vine.

 

But my favorite tip was a culinary curiosity.  You can take the fresh blossoms of redbud trees and make a simple syrup with a subtle floral flavor in a lovely shade of pink.  However, when you pour the syrup over pancakes, they will turn (a little) green!  Redbud syrup is in fact a pH indicator, and turns green in alkaline conditions.

I had hoped to learn a few interesting tidbits and pick up a few plant ID tips, and this hike exceeded my expectations.  I highly recommend keeping an eye open for future events at the park, which you can do on their various social media pages or by signing up for their newsletter at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources email updates page.  This site is a great way to opt in for information from many state parks and ADCNR activities.

 

 

Norris Dam State Park: More than We’d Bargained for

In my last post, I mentioned that Chet and I spent a weekend in a cabin at Norris Dam State Park.  I have to admit that this Tennessee state park was not one I knew much, if anything, about. Based on the fact that it was at a dam, it was pretty safe to assume someplace on a river. Some hazy memory made me place it in the eastern part of the state as opposed to the western or central part, though the “on a river clue” could have put me in almost any part of the state. Turns out, this park is on the Clinch River just north and a little west of Knoxville. We picked the park for our weekend getaway because it had an available cabin in our price range, was not too terribly far away, and had the promise of some hiking trails in the area. That’s about all we actually knew before we started heading up there. As it turns out, there’s a little bit of something for everybody there!

First things first, the state park itself. Originally a “demonstration recreational project” owned by TVA, the more historic eastern half of the park features 19 rustic cabins, a campground, a Tea Room, and hiking trails. There is also easy access to the Norris Dam Visitor’s Center. The cabins were built by CCC Company 4493 starting around 1933 – at about the same time as Norris Dam was being built. They are all small one room affairs but “rustic” is kind of a misleading name. While they are old and small, all have a bathroom, air conditioning, television, and a kitchenette. The cabin we stayed in, cabin 20, sleeps two and had plenty of room. Granted, the bathroom was pretty tiny, but once you figured out where you needed to stand to close the door, it worked just fine. The cabin also came with a lovely screened in front porch, complete with rocking chairs and a bench swing. It also had an indoor fireplace and an outdoor fire pit that I can imagine are delightful when it’s not a million degrees outside. The cabins are arranged around a loop road around a wooded ridge top. There was a playground within walking distance, and a Little Free Library by the kiosk near the top of the loop. Many of the hiking trails on the eastern side of the park are reachable either directly from this area, or from a short spur trail. We checked out the Tea Room, which is a beautiful  space used now mostly for events, and also drove to the campground to check it out. There’s much to like about the eastern side of the park, but I do have to say that campground is not included on that list. The campground on this side is pretty much just an open area in a power line cut. There are no trees, and while there are bathhouses and I think a playground area, it just didn’t look inviting at all. TVA sold the park to the State of Tennessee in 1953. The State turned it into a state park, also buying up and developing land on the west side. The final piece to the park was put in place in 1986 when they gained control of the marina close to the dam. The western part of the park is home to the park office, a public pool, 10 three bedroom cabins built in the 1970s,  a very nice 50 spot, shady campground, and more hiking trails. If you’re looking to camp, I’d definitely recommend the western side.

Though we picked a spot where we could hike, we’ve already covered the hiking aspect of our trip in previous blog posts. So other than hiking, what else is there to do? Well, here’s a sampling of what we did or thought about doing:

  • Being beer-lovers and beer-brewers, we always are on the lookout for local breweries to try out. Clinch River Brewing is the only craft brewery in Anderson County, and it just so happened to be about 8 minutes down the road from our cabin. This place has been open only since 2017 but boasts 16 taps – 15 featuring their own brews and 1 they use to rotate in Gypsy Circus cider or mead. They have an interesting space – it used to be the home of the TVA Aquatics Laboratory – with indoor and outdoor seating areas. They also have an onsite chef who prepares a selection of small bites, sandwiches, and a dessert or two. We greatly appreciated the fact that they brew all different styles of beer. We sampled a stout, a porter, a Belgian dark strong, an IPA, a hefeweizen, and a lager.
  • You can’t really visit Norris Dam State Park without visiting Norris Dam itself, if only to pull into the overlooks and gawk. The first project ever started by TVA, Norris Dam was begun in 1933, just months after TVA was born.  At its peak, 2,750 people worked on the dam, working in four shifts so that there was around the clock construction. It cost $32 million and took three years to complete.  The resulting lake, Norris Lake, flooded 33, 840 acres of land, required the relocation of  2,899 families and the moving of more than 5,000 graves. Despite the relocations and the flooding, though, the dam also brought a whole new standard of living to what had been a very rural and even impoverished area of the country. We checked out the visitor’s center during our hike, then also drove to the overviews above the dam to the west, and below the dam on the Clinch River.
  • Another local attraction is outside the park, but close by. The Museum of Appalachia is a living history museum begun in 1969 by John Rice Irwin. A native of the area, Mr. Irwin traveled the back roads collecting interesting artifacts of everyday life in Appalachia. His intent was to preserve the history of the area, but also to provide a place that would foster a sense of community. The museum is 65 acres filled with relocated cabins, barns, various farm outbuildings, a church, and a schoolhouse. Some of the more famous buildings include the cabin used during the filming of the “Dan’l Boone” TV series (despite being used for TV, the cabin was originally built in the 1800s in Anderson County) and the cabin where Mark Twain’s family lived before they moved to Missouri.  There are also two large spaces – the Hall of Fame and the Display Barn – filled to the brim with exhibits. What I loved most about these exhibits was how they treated everything with equal respect. There were displays about the famous Sgt. Alvin York, hero of World War I, next to displays about the guy who raised his family in a hollow sycamore tree. Panels about Secretary of State Cordell Hull were given only a little more space than those for “Tater Hole Joe” – a guy who, well,  lived in a hole. I was also delighted to see a display about Cas Walker – someone I remember seeing in commercials on TV when I was young. Lamar Alexander –  former governor of Tennessee, current US Senator, and onetime presidential candidate from my hometown of Maryville, Tennessee also got a nice display. His momma Flo would have been proud. Chet especially enjoyed the musical instruments exhibit in the Hall of Fame. There, we found everything from a banjo made from the jawbone of a favorite mule, to instruments played by the famous Carter family. It’s a fascinating place, and deserved much more than the couple of hours we allotted to it.
  • We’re always on the looking for a good local place to eat, and the nearby town of Rocky Top (yes, that’s really the name) answered the call with Coal Creek Smokehouse. This family owned barbeque place served up the normal selection of BBQ items – sandwiches, pork plates, brisket, pork belly – but it also has a vegetarian option, turkey or ham BLTs, roast beef, stuffed potatoes, or their specialty “burnt ends.” The town of Coal Creek is an interesting place. Settled shortly after the area opened up for settlements in 1798, it started life as Coal Creek. In 1890, it was the site of a notorious armed labor uprising called the Coal Creek War, where local coal miners rioted because Tennessee was cutting deals with the mining company for cheap convict labor. In 1936, when Norris Dam was completed, creating Lake Norris, the town changed its name to Lake City. Most recently, in 2014 the town successfully petitioned to change its name to “Rocky Top” in a bid to gain some kind of commercial advantage off the UT fight song.

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  • Another park-related attraction is the Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex. I’ll be honest, we had a bit of museum overload with the Museum of Appalachia, so we skipped the actual Lenoir Museum, but we did visit the other two historic buildings in the complex. The Caleb Crosby Threshing Barn was built in the 1830s on the Holston River. When the land it was on was flooded by Cherokee Lake in the 1940s (another TVA dam project – this one the Cherokee Dam), the barn was disassembled and then donated to the National Park Service. The Park Service declined to move it to the closest National Park – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – because no barn like it had ever existed inside the park boundaries. The barn sat in storage until 1978, when somebody had the bright idea to donate to Norris Lake State Park. It was reassembled on Clear Creek just downstream from Norris Dam. Right next to the barn is the Rice Gristmill. Built in 1798 along Lost Creek in Union County, this mill was used by several generations of the Rice family until Norris Dam flooded the land it was on. It was moved to Clear Creek in 1935.
  • We didn’t take advantage of the pool at Norris Lake State Park, but we did take a look at it as we were checking out. It is a nice large pool with what looked like a baby pool off to one side. For those who just want to keep an eye on the kiddos, there are plenty of tables and chaise lounges scattered around on multiple levels.  It’s open to the public for $5 a person, and if you are a park guest (i.e. camping there or staying in one of the cabins) you can get in for $3 a person. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 10-6. Weirdly, the sign said that it closes for the season on August 2nd.
  • Finally, besides all the amenities, the park has all sorts of  planned activities to keep everybody busy. When we were there, the park was having a “40 on the 4th” special event. I don’t know if this is a yearly event or something special just for 2018, but when we checked in we got a 16 page booklet listing all the activities available between June 25th and July 1st. They had everything from ranger-guided hikes, to live snake demonstrations, to craft activities, to a lake cruise, to fireworks. It was very impressive.

We honestly hadn’t asked for much from the place we picked to spend the weekend. All we wanted was a reasonably priced cabin and some hiking trails. We got that, but we got so much more than we expected.