River Birch (?) by Swannanoa Creek
I could tell you the easiest way to get to Point Lookout, but since I opted for the much longer scenic route, that’s what you get.
I began literally astride the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap. By the time I reached the Kitsuma trailhead, though, I was on the Atlantic side of the Divide.
The first several hundred feet of Kitsuma Trail skirt Interstate 40 West, and you experience the relentless, hellish noise of traffic in a way you avoid while driving in it. Soon, you climb a series of switchbacks overlooking the highway and reach the summit of Kitsuma Peak (elevation 3,159).
Kitsuma Trail, I have learned, is achieving legendary status among mountain bikers - “gnarly” - to quote one fan. They love it…and hate it. The half-mile climb up Kitsuma Peak is the dreaded “calf-popping lung buster.” But the reward for that effort is a long and treacherous descent down Youngs Ridge to the Old Fort Picnic Area.
I’ll spare you the cycling jargon describing the highlights of this single-track trail. To those who can successfully negotiate it (as opposed to a biker like me, who would end up wrapped around a tree), I tip my hat. Even this video made by Al Garcia on June 28, 2009 is enough to give you a mild adrenaline rush:
As someone eager to see wildflowers, I don’t anticipate spending precious spring afternoons dodging high-speed mountain bikes on the Kitsuma Trail. Other locations hold greater botanical interest. Most of the trail is on south-facing slopes, reflected in the plant communities along the way. However, with the foliage at a minimum now, the route offers nice views of many surrounding mountain ranges.
Three miles into the hike, I sensed trouble. Expecting rain showers before the end of the day, I had laced up my Timberland boots instead of the lighter weight, but less waterproof, Merrell hikers I usually wear on the trail. On the long decline, my feet got into a disagreement with my boots. The boots were winning decisively, and so my pace slowed on what otherwise would have been an easy downhill cruise.
After the trail turned from the east to the north, I heard running water for the first time and noted a change in vegetation, with lots of rhododendron, dog hobble and lush moss.
I knew I was nearing the Old Fort Picnic Area when I saw the stonework of an old fountain. It was constructed, no doubt, by the CCC boys who had built the picnic area long ago.
Much to my chagrin, I was the only picnicker in the vast dining area along Swannanoa Creek (elevation 1610). I had my choice of tables, and fine tables they were.
After polishing off a can of tuna and a PB&J, I explored the banks of the creek. I really wasn’t expecting to see any flowering plants on the hike, but at the very lowest elevation of the day, I did see some flashy early bloomers at the very lowest elevation of the hike.
I’m guessing the delicate blossoms were river birch (Betula nigra) but it is quite possible that I got this wrong (and welcome correction on this point). The pendulous tassels are the male catkins, and if you look closely, you’ll see cone-like structures that contain the female flowers. When I bumped the catkins while taking pictures, they dispersed small clouds of greenish-yellow pollen.
Swannanoa Creek should not be confused with the Swannanoa River. The former flows east to join the Catawba, while the latter flows west into the French Broad. Their watersheds do adjoin at Swannanoa Gap, so when I crossed the divide I passed from The Swannanoa River drainage to the Swannanoa Creek drainage in one step.
According to anthropologist James Mooney, the name “Swannanoa” is derived from the Cherokee “Suwali-Nunna” meaning “trail of the Suwali tribe.” The “Suwali” or “Sara” people lived to the east of the mountains, and their ancient trail followed the Cartawba River (south of the present-day interstate) before crossing the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap.
A century ago, Buncombe historian Foster Sondley cited Mooney’s explanation along with other theories on the origin of “Swannanoa:”
Sometimes it is said to be a Cherokee word meaning "beautiful"; sometimes a Cherokee word meaning "nymph of beauty"; sometimes a Cherokee attempt to imitate the sound made by the wings of ravens or vultures flying down the valley; sometimes a Cherokee attempt to imitate the call of the owls seated upon trees on the banks of the stream…
Sondley dismissed all of these:
[Swannanoa] is merely a form of the word "Shawano," itself a common form of "Shawnee," the name of a well-known tribe of Indians. These Shawanoes were great wanderers and their villages were scattered from Florida to Pennsylvania and Ohio, each village usually standing alone in the country of some other Indian tribe. They had a village in Florida or Southern Georgia on the Swanee or Suanee River, which gets its name from them.
Another of their towns was in South Carolina, a few miles below Augusta, on the Savannah River which separates South Carolina from Georgia. This was "Savannah Town," or, as it was afterwards called, "Savanna Old Town." The name of "Savannah," given to that river and town, is a form of the word "Shawano," and those Indians were known to the early white settlers of South Carolina as "Savannas." The Shawanoes had a settlement on Cumberland River near the site of the present city of Nashville, Tennessee, when the French first visited that region…
These Shawano Indians had a town on the Swannanoa River about one-half mile above its mouth and on its southern bank, when the white hunters began to make excursions into those mountain lands.
Between 1700 and 1750 all the Shawanoes in the South removed to new homes north of the Ohio River where they soon became very troublesome to the white people and were answerable for most of the massacres in that region perpetrated in that day by Indians, especially in Kentucky, it being their boast that they had killed more white men than had any other tribe of Indians.
Their town at the mouth of the Swannanoa River had been abandoned before 1776, but its site was then well known as "Swannano." At that time the river seems not to have been named; but very soon afterwards it was called, for the town and its former inhabitants, Swannano, or later Swannanoa River. One of the earliest grants for land on its banks and covering both sides and including the site of the present Biltmore, calls the stream the "Savanna River."
A little lunch, a little rest, a little botany, a little toponymy, and the picnic was over. I shouldered my pack, crossed Swannanoa Creek and reached Old Highway 70 for the second part of my hike, back up the mountain via Point Lookout and the Royal Gorge.
[to be continued]