On a Sunday morning, craving a hike in Appalachia.
With street names like Bacon Flat, Tater Ridge and Plum Run, I’ve come to think of Chalet Nivale Nature Reserve as a comfort hike. And on this Sunday morning following the time change, it’s what I crave.
Nestled between dolomite cliffs and a few rural traditional homes, the turnoff for the preserve is marked by a sign that appears more homemade than produced by an official organization such as the Arc of Appalachia Preserves (ARC) which owns and manages the land.
The parking lot is graveled and more suggestion than a lined lot. There is ample room for four or five cars and allows us, the only car, to back into the space. In the distance, an empty cabin, the caretaker’s cabin, invites us to stick around. It’ll be worth the gurgling creek, it promises.
Before we embarked on the trip, I told my husband, “We’ll have to cross creeks.” And immediately, we are met with the intersection of Crawdad Creek and a Scioto Brush Creek tributary. The immersive creek crossings, which will require wading boots, come later.
We are at Chalet Nivale, named for the chalet or home where the preserve’s caretaker resides, and nivale which is the flower, Trillium Nivale, also known as Snow Trillium. The ownership of the preserve was a hard-won battle to save one of the largest collections of this type of spring flower.
As part of the larger network of ARC trails, this preserve boasts of three paths, each approximately one mile in length. The website promises a karst-landscape, which according to National Geographic, “is an area of land made up of limestone…a soft rock that dissolves in water. As rainwater seeps into the rock, it slowly erodes…Karst landscapes feature caves, underground streams and sinkholes on the surface. Where erosion has worn away the land above ground, steep rocky cliffs are visible.”
It’s the first of November, and our plan is to escape the deafening silence that has befallen the city during the pandemic. Nature demands our attention in the same way my mother commanded we show for Sunday dinner. So here we are set to feast on a buffet of trails for hungry souls.
We choose the Early Buttercup Trail first. In the swale of soaring trees and hillsides, we hide from winds gusting up to 20 mph over the treetops. Acorns assail us, as do pointed dry oak and maple leaves that, like darts, hit my forehead like a bullseye.
The hike of 1.2 miles is slow as we twist and turn, and marvel — at anything. On a Sunday, I am usually pushing through seven or eight miles in the city, but today, I want to slow everything down. To breathe in the nutty aroma of leaves not yet touched by feet. Leaves that may well crumble before a drop of rain causes them to melt.
I once heard a suggestion for a walking exercise where one is given the task to look for all the colors of the rainbow. This brings comfort from the anxiety over the darkness after the time change. In the absence of brightly-hued leaves, I am spotting other colors.
An orange oak leaf flails in the wind, caught beneath dead ones. Blue hues paint the side of the limestone. Green is, of course, everywhere, but also on the snail shell that upon first inspection appeared as a bug in the water.
As we hike, my husband and I ponder the pronunciation of crick or creek. Does it depend on where you were raised? How big the creek was closest to your home? Or how lucky you were to live near a creek at all?
Near the end of the Early Buttercup Trail, we are met with the option to traverse Crawdad Creek Trail, named because these waterways contain four species of crawfish commonly found here. More rock configurations appear as cresting waves stopped in time. Some formations reach forty feet high. At ground level, we kneel in awe as knights at the foot of the fortress above.
All trails are marked with subtle green arrows. In particular, when you’re uncertain if you want to cross the creek, the arrows beckon you on. With little rain this fall, the water is about four inches deep in places. But with our sturdy Timberlands, we ford the stream, hopping or balancing on rocks and leaves. Even if I had wore sneakers, I would have relished getting a cold soaker, as we called them in my youth, when we fell into the “crick.”
Rounding the last of the Crawdad Creek Trail, we intersect with Golden Meadows Trail and and are greeted by wind gusts, batting about drying milkweeds, thistle, and Queen Anne’s lace, ready to call it quits for the season. Ahead are a bevy of pines and a stretch of cedar that yields berries for another of my “blue” finds. At the halfway turn, a large buck spots us before we spot him. All we catch is a glimpse of his hide bounding away.
While there’s much more to see in the spring, including the trillium, salamanders and other animal wildlife, it was worth the drive to take in the color we worked for to observe — a lesson that nature will hand us what we need for comfort.
And when it doesn’t, we can stop by the Old “Y” restaurant in Mowrystown for butterscotch or chocolate cream pie, or make our way back along roads or runs, like Cherry Fork, named to lead us home.