Thursday, May 10, 2007

Friends in Low Places

I went hiking yesterday with the Wednesday hiking group. We had decided to try to find some natural arches in southern Kentucky. It only took us a little over an hour to get to the Daniel Boone National Forest just over the border from Tennessee. Our leader, Jim, had a list of 7 arches. Except for 1, these were not on any trails or roads. The only way to find them was through their GPS coordinates. It would involve bushwhacking.

Bushwhacking is a term that means going through the woods without benefit of a trail. In this part of the country it entails crashing through Laurel thickets and briers, going over and under downed trees, and climbing up and down rock faces. When the GPS indicated that our destination was 300 yards to the southeast, then we headed in that direction. That was the day's modus operandi for about 12 of us searching for obscure natural arches.

In contrast to bushwhacking, when you are hiking on trails, you can see where you are going and where you are going to step. Chiggers, ticks, and snakes are less of a problem on trails because you are not crashing through vegetation or climbing on rocks. Because we knew that we would be hiking off trail, this was the first time that I decided to wear my snake proof gaiters. About half of our group had similar gaiters. Now you can understand why.

After finding the first two arches we were spread out across the forest trying to find our way back to the cars. That is when we met Mr. (or Mrs.) Timber Rattlesnake pictured above. One of the hikers spotted him stretched out on the forest floor. Several of us had already passed by that area but since we were not walking in a line it is not clear how close anyone came to stepping on him. We estimated the length at a little over 3 feet long maybe 3 1/2 feet. That is the average size of males, although they may reach a maximum size of 5 feet or more. Females are slightly smaller. Without counting scales under the tail (we couldn't find a volunteer) you can't tell the sex of Timber Rattlesnakes just by looking at them.

Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are the only venomous snakes in this part of the Cumberland Plateau. There are Cottonmouths and Pygmy Rattlesnakes in western Tennessee, but not here. Copperheads are less of a threat because of their smaller size, smaller amount of venom, less toxic venom and smaller fangs. Timber Rattlesnakes, however, can be somewhat dangerous because of their larger everything.

But the good news is that Timber Rattlesnakes are generally very non-aggressive and this guy seemed to verify that. The snake was calm and he just lay stretched out without moving until we surrounded him for picture taking. He then slowly moved toward a log, probably for better protection. I finally had to gently touch him with a stick to get him to coil for some different pictures. He only ever rattled very softly and only for a few seconds.

You can see the 8 rattles on his tail. Rattlesnakes get another rattle every time they shed their skin...about every year or two. With 8 rattles, we could guess that this guy is between 8 and 16 years old. But since rattles often break off, he could be up to 30 which is about their normal life span. Females aren't sexually mature until they are at least 7 and then they only have young every 3 years on average. Rattlesnakes are eaten by raptors, skunks, raccoons, other snakes, and yes, even humans.

We spent about 10 minutes photographing him from every angle. (Click on any picture for a bigger view) Then we moved on so he could get back to his priorities.

In addition to the rattlesnake we did find 5 out of the 7 arches that we set out to look for. We could have checked off the other 2, but we decided to call it a day and go for ice cream instead.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Festivals, food, and fun with Ramps!

You are looking at a bundle of Ramps. We attended a Ramp Festival in Cosby, Tennessee on Sunday. More on this later.

We had a busy 2 days Saturday and Sunday. We went on a 2 day adventure with friends Gary and Doris. First, on Saturday afternoon we went to the Shrimp Dock seafood store in Knoxville. This is a well known store that sells only fresh seafood. The seafood is flown in daily. You can order virtually any kind of fresh fish you want to and they will get it for you....flown in fresh. Well, once a year, the Shrimp Dock blocks off the parking lot and serves fresh seafood....for free. What a feast! They had raw oysters, grilled tuna, swordfish, salmon, shrimp, crawfish, crab legs, plus rice, potatoes, etc., etc. You could go back through the line as often as you wanted to. Plus, there was a good band playing in the parking lot. Excellent food, and the price was right.

Then, we weren't done with Knoxville yet. Downtown Knoxville had their once a year Rossini Festival. This is a street fair with 4 or more stages with free entertainment, numerous craft and food vendors and lots of wine and beer. Rossini was a famous Italian opera composer who wrote the opera "The Barber of Seville", and the "William Tell Overture", better known as the Lone Ranger theme. I have no idea why they celebrate Mr. Rossini in Knoxville, but the beer, food and entertainment were great.

Next, we headed on to the Creekwalk Inn Bed and Breakfast at Whisperwood Farm Retreat near Cosby, Tennessee, near the North Carolina border. Doris stumbled upon this bed and breakfast on the Internet, and what a find it was. When we arrived at 6:30pm the owner, Janice, upon checking us in said that she had just opened an excellent bottle of wine and wanted to know if we wanted to help her finish it. She is in a wine club and she had a bottle of a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. We helped her empty the bottle. We were glad that we could be of assistance.

Our rooms in the log inn were beautiful. At 9pm as we were sitting in the den of the inn working on another bottle of wine, the owner's daughter, Kelsey, brought us some cheesecake for an evening snack. The live pansies decorating the servings were also edible. Nice touch!

The next morning after a 2 hour multi-course unbelievable breakfast, we went with Janice and the 2 dogs for a personal tour of all of the buildings on the property and to meet and feed the 6 horses. Each horse had his or her own personality. Buster Brown was 30 years old and gentle as a puppy as he followed 3 feet behind us everywhere we went. The 1 1/2 year old Percheron cross had to be in a high fenced corral because he would jump over every other fence, including the one he was in. The quarter horse was the boss and all the other horses ate away from or after him. The Thoroughbred was spirited and feisty. The Paint had a temporarily infected foot and couldn't limp to the feeding area and had to be fed by hand. He is expected to recover soon. And the Arabian was white with red freckles....very beautiful. Horses sure are very large, dusty, slobbery, shedding, smelly, poopie animals. But, we loved every minute with them and especially the information that Janice told us about each individual.

We highly recommend this bed and breakfast. It was one of the best ones that we ever stayed at. Here is their website.

But we still weren't done yet. On Sunday after our B & B and horse feeding adventure we headed a few miles up the road to the 54th annual Cosby Ramp Festival. Ramps are a type of wild onion that grows in the mountains. It has a flavor of both onion and garlic. Ramps are more well known in West Virginia, and in fact Nancy and I attended a Ramp "Feed" in West Virginia while in college about 38 years ago.

Here is Doris, Gary, and Nancy at the The Ramp Festival in Cosby. There were numerous bands playing on 2 separate stages, art and craft vendors, and a whole series of beauty pageants including the crowning of the Maid of the Ramps. We labeled her the "Ramp Tramp" for the rhyming effect, even though she was a beautiful young lady.

And of course, there was food at the Ramp Festival. You could have scrambled eggs with ramps, beans with ramps, raw uncooked ramps, etc. The only major problem was that they ran out of ramps at the Ramp festival just before we got our unbelievable disappointment! However, we found a couple of good ole local boys selling ramps in the parking lot. They told us that they illegally dug them and sneaked them out of the woods. They had to be very careful, they told us, because they had been busted previously for digging ginseng as well as ramps. Ginseng is protected except for a certain season with a required permit and I think the illegal part of digging ramps had to do with where they got them. But they were nice good ole boys and they gave me a free bundle of ramps (worth $4) in exchange for my offer of a glass of wine. We told them we would look for them next year.

Gary ate one raw ramp at the festival and planned to eat more Sunday night. The significance of eating raw ramps is this: Thirty eight years ago several fraternity brothers in college ate raw ramps (instead of the cooked ones) and they cleared out the bathrooms in the fraternity house for 2 days. The odor from the bathroom (as well as from their breath) was pretty much unbearable to those of us who did not eat raw ramps. On the way into the Ramp Festival I mentioned this previous 2 day odor fest to one of the ticket takers. He said that I remembered correctly about raw ramps except for one was more like 2 weeks rather than 2 days.

We had a nice weekend of festivals, food and fun. We left Gary and Doris and headed home on Sunday afternoon. I can't wait to hear the outcome (pun intended) of Gary's raw ramp diet. I challenged him to eat lots in order to ensure the full effect.