The Magnificent Ramsey Cascade Trail

After the robust education we got from the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, it was time to go out and see the splendor for ourselves. What better way to do this than to hike?

Our friend suggested we take a guided hike with A Walk in the Woods. She had been on a couple of their trips, and had loved them beyond measure. She found their knowledge of the area, the history and natural surroundings enriched an already incredible experience.

This would be our first time hiking with any elevation outside of the Midwest, and I wanted to see how my abilities stacked up. We chose the Ramsey Cascade trail, an 8 hour round trip hike over some challenging terrain. We would gain nearly 2200 feet in elevation to the tallest waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I was looking forward to every inch of it.

We met up with our guide Michael and our fellow travelers Ben & Meghan at the trailhead parking lot. The day threatened rain, but so far was beautiful and sunny.

Our surroundings were lush and green, and the first portion of the trail was pretty level, making a very pleasant walk. This gave us a chance to get to know one another better, and ask a bajillion questions about the incredible things we were seeing on the trail.

We were just a touch late for the wildflower boom, but there were still many gems to be found. It is so much fun to travel outside of your normal region and be surrounded by flora and fauna that are vastly different from what you are used to seeing.

About 2 miles in, we came across a footbridge that was looong and narrow – and about 20 feet over the roaring river below. Standing on the bridge, it felt 100 feet up, and a mile long. It took every ounce of convincing in my own head to make me put one foot in front of the other. My legs were jelly when I finally reached the other side, but I felt amazed that I was able to do it. My list of accomplishments were getting longer by the day.

Among the many highlights of the day was getting to hike through old growth forest. Some of these venerable trees include white oak, red maple, tulip poplar & hemlock among others. With the increasing loss of native species due to invasives and climate change, it is gratifying to see these old trees holding on.

After the footbridge, the trail became more challenging, and I was glad for all the training we had done on stairs. I was killing it though, and felt great. Perhaps it was the inspiring surroundings, but I was absolutely in my element.

With how lush everything was, its not surprising that we found an incredible number of new fungi. I want to know what every single one of them are, but with 50,000 different species of visible fungi, I have my work cut out for me.

The closer we drew to the falls, the more steep and slick the trail became. I admit to falling on my butt once – but was so graceful in getting back up that no one else noticed. 😉

Just before our destination, we spied this sign. Apparently, there have been deaths as a result of people climbing around and to the top of the falls. The area is incredibly slippery with all the algae, moss and mist. With as cautious as I generally am, and as badass as I felt after the footbridge, I was feeling pretty secure.

The Cascades were impressive and incredibly cool. In spite of coming across a handful of people on the trail, we were the only ones at the falls themselves. The mist was powerful and I pulled out my jacket to keep dry and warm.

We sat on the large boulders below the falls and ate the lunch we brought along with us. It was a fun way to celebrate and to linger in this incredibly beautiful place.

It began to rain on the way back. It was a light rain, and cooled everything off. It also brought out all the fascinating wildlife. I had never seen a salamander before, and I saw 4 that day!

It was an incredible hike, a magnificent day, and I fell in love with the Smokies.

Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the GSMNP

We were invited to visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for several days this spring with some good friends.

We’d never been before, and didn’t have high expectations in spite of all the glowing reports we’d heard from friends. Wow, were we blown away. Just driving into the park is magical, with towering trees, rivers & wild turkey in all their glory right on the side of the road. It’s like the rangers staged the scene just before we showed up, in order to make the best possible first impression.

We were extra fortunate that our time in the park allowed us to attend one day of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is 5 days of classes, hikes, seminars and more – all in the the park and surrounding area. I wish we could have been there for the whole event, but we packed in a lot on the one day that we had. (you can see last year’s brochure here)

Our first class was “Forest Foods and Pharmacy” taught by the venerable Ila Hatter, who has been teaching about wildcrafting for more than 25 years. Some of our other classmates have been coming to her sessions year after year, because they always learn something new.

We were led on a 3 mile walk in the Metcalf Bottoms area to rustle up whatever useful plant life could be found. We learned about mullein which can be good for wounds, partridge berry that you can eat for its vitamin c content (tastes bland, but kindof nice), sweet birch branches that taste like wintergreen and can be made into a vitamin rich tea, and many more.

It was all so fascinating, and I wish I could absorb everything she said. She was passionate and wrapped her lessons in wonderful stories of past experiences. Fortunately she was selling her books afterward, and we picked up a copy of her cookbook Roadside Rambles .

We were having the time of our lives. There is not much better than learning while being outside and hiking – sincerely three of our favorite things. The trails here are not to be beat. Everything is so lush, varied and well maintained.

Our next class was “Fungal Roles in Forest Ecology” taught by Ed Lickey and >Gary Walker. Right off the bat we learned about the basic classifications of mushrooms and got to see some great examples. It’s no secret that Thom and I love to take fungi photos, but we really didn’t know much about them before this class.

For instance, we had no idea that the mushrooms we usually see are just the fruiting body of the organism – like an apple to the tree. The actual fungus is the mycelium, a complicated thread-like structure that branches its way through the host. That’s why, in certain areas, it’s ok to harvest found mushrooms – because you aren’t harming the actual fungus.

Our teachers were full of energy and got up close and personal with the specimens they found. Here, Ed uses a hand lens to see the structure of the fungus. These lenses are incredibly powerful, and reveal an entire new world. If you are interested at all in mycology or plant-life, I encourage you to pick one up. You can learn so much more by getting a closer look.

We have so much more to learn about mycology, and this book came highly recommended. It’s still on our to-buy list, but we did purchase Musrooms of the Midwest just to narrow the field a bit. We were so inspired by this class – we can hardly wait to learn more.

To top off our wonderful day, as we were departing, the line of cars began to pile up. My instinct was *bear* and I was absolutely right. This gorgeous black bear was hanging out on the other side of the river, just taking a gander at the line of people standing around taking photos. It was our first day in the Smokies!

The 2016 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will take place April 19 – 23 and we think that it is an amazing opportunity for anyone who loves nature and wants to learn more. We will certainly be going back!

Making the Most of New Orleans

  • See local flora and fauna in its prime at the Audubon Park. Both local and migrating birds flock here, and the century old oak trees are magnificent to behold.
  • The Audubon Zoo is not to be missed! Their spotlight on the swamp is fantastic and both the orangutan exhibit and enclosed aviary really shine. One could easily make a whole day of it here.

  • Explore all the bayou has to offer with Canoe & Trail Adventures! Their guides are local, knowledgeable, experienced, and passionate about the Louisiana outdoors.
  • Each tour includes a canoe or kayak plus all paddling equipment, drinking water, bug spray, waterproof cases for phones, raingear (when needed) and more.

  • You can’t go to New Orleans and miss the famous Cafe Du Monde! Be sure to get there early to nab a seat and watch the hubbub over coffee and beignets.
  • Enjoy fine dining at Tujague’s Restaurant, where we had the best meal of our trip. They also just happen to make the best Pimm’s Cup we’ve ever had!
  • Take a moment for a unique experience and sample some absinthe at the Old Absinthe House. Watch as they prepare the drink in the traditional fashion in front of you!

  • Frenchman Street is a vibrant destination for all your music desires. Without the crowds of other areas in the city, you can explore and enjoy the ambiance.
  • The Spotted Cat was our favorite music venue. They have a terrific lineup, crackling energy and some fun dance space.
  • If you’re really fortunate, you will be blessed to witness a local marching band serenading the passers-by. Keep your ears open and head for the music!

  • Mardi Gras World is a hoot! Learn about the history of the incredible Mardi Gras parade events and then get a tour of the warehouse where old and new actual parade floats are stored. Better yet, see the actual artist studios where artists are hard at work on future float props. Make sure to look closely, there are some real hidden gems to be found.
  • This incredibly diverse city has a wealth of street art to enjoy – just keep your eyes open!

New Orleans and the Bayou

We had the glorious opportunity to visit New Orleans earlier this year with friends!

We did all of the essential New Orleans tourist things! We had coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, visited the amazing Mardi Gras World and listened to fabulous music on Frenchman Street.

We had amazing food and discovered that Tujagues makes the worlds best Pimm’s Cup. Thom also got to sample his first absinthe at the Old Absinthe House and declared it good. (even though it made his mouth entirely numb)

Thom and I love zoos, and like to visit them in different locales whenever we can. It is so much fun to see how the different regions showcase their local flora and fauna. Some are really incredible, and the New Orleans Audubon Zoo goes out of its way to showcase the swamp environment. We really loved the new orangutan exhibit and there is nothing better than an enclosed aviary! Make sure to spend some time in the gorgeous Audubon Park too. It is a gem of a park that is a magnet for local and migrating birds, as well as some gorgeous trees.

The piece de resistance of our trip south was a canoe trip on the bayou with Canoe and Trail Adventures! I was so excited about this trip, I just knew the scenery was going to be magical, and I wanted to learn everything I could about the swamp. I sure picked the right company. Right from the start, Chad put us at ease and Tom pulled out the maps to give us some history of the bayou into Lake Maurepas. We love that stuff!

We also met our tour partners, Noel and John, who were delightful. Sharing these experiences with others is one of our favorite things to do and making new friends wherever we go is a giant perk.

It was incredible straight away. The swamp feels like another world entirely. This bayou is a cypress and tupelo wetland with the telltale moss and aquatic plants. (to include invasives like salvina that are threatening these amazing waterways)

Right away we got to witness a couple of alligators, which is a big novelty for us. None of them were very large, and they had zero interest in us, which is just as I like it. I also love all the cypress knees. Some trees had over 100 knees! There have been several theories over the years for the purpose of these knees, but the prevailing idea suggests that they work to stabilize the tree from harsh conditions. And because cypress trees are so resistant to rot, even dead trees remain standing for generations.

We were clearly having the time of our lives. The weather was perfect – especially as there were some powerful storms earlier in the week, and our tour had the possibility of cancellation.

Our guide Tom was wonderful and exceedingly patient as we peppered him with questions during the course of the paddle. We were thrilled to learn that many of the guides are also certified Master Naturalists through the Louisiana Master Naturalist Program! You know that you’re working with die-hard nature fans when they take the time to work through the program. We felt like true kindred spirits and discovered that they take out Master Naturalist trainees on special bayou trips. We may try to find another time to finagle a trip to New Orleans just to experience that.

Paddling in spring meant we got the chance to see several swamp wildflowers. We saw bull tongue, spider lily, Louisiana iris and so much more.

We passed directly under a massive bald eagle’s nest, where two parents were tending to two fledglings. It was seriously cool. We also had an enormous barred owl that followed us along the watery trail to stare us down. We also picked up some hitchhikers – these were cricket frogs. That was a treat because we’ve been frog monitors at home and learned the cricket frog’s call early on. It is a surprisingly small frog for such a powerful call. We also spied some prothonotary warblers and my first indigo bunting! I get such a thrill from seeing wildlife.

It was just an incredible trip that we never wanted to end. Tom even took us all the way to the lake, adding an extra 30 minutes to our outing, and we felt extra blessed for all of his time. If you have never had the chance to see the bayou up close – please make sure it is on your life list. It is not to be missed!

New Orleans is a pretty incredible city with a character unique to any place we’ve ever been. There is so much fun to be had, great food to sample, music to enjoy, art to be seen and nature to experience. Take a trip yourself and Live a Great Story!!

Seed collecting on the prairie

Indian Grass

Volunteering is one of the important components of being a Master Naturalist. We need to complete 60 hours of volunteer work to move from interns to full Master Naturalists, and then log 30 hours annually to keep our certification. We have fallen in love with volunteering. It’s a great format for socializing with others who are passionate about nature, and we really get to participate in making our natural areas better than we found them. Its an amazing feeling!

One of our favorite activities is seed collecting. There can be little better than tramping through the prairie, looking for grasses and forbes (prairie flowers) to collect their fall bounty. It gets you off the trail and into the heart of things to view the landscape a whole new way. There is also no better way to learn to ID and differentiate plant species than going on a giant treasure hunt for your assigned seed.


We collected Boneset, Rosinweed, Big Blue Stem grass, Coneflowers and more. It was surprisingly exhilarating and we went out multiple times as the fall progressed.


Sometimes while you’re out there, you get a real treat. The above photo is of a native Illinois orchid, Nodding Lady Tresses! I didn’t even know that the plains states had their own orchids.

Now that the cold weather is setting in, we get together to clean the seed so we can rebroadcast it next spring in the areas needing further development.

We worked on Rattlesnake Master, which is a cool plant but has strong prickly seeds. We had to wear gloves to protect our skin while we removed the seed from the seedhead, but made quick work of the project.

We’re supposed to remove the seed from the chaff, but its not an exact science amongst our group and its all going to go back to the ground anyway. I have a new found respect for small scale seed companies! I have no idea how they get them so clean.

It was a fun day. We got the chance to reconnect with our old Master Naturalist classmates, and meet new folks from previous classes. Everyone brought food to share and there was a post seed feast to enjoy among friends. Its the very best kind of volunteering!