June was about flies. Yep, flies. I always carry a small journal with me on my longer photography trips and I remember jotting down “flies” several times in the margins–deep stuff, huh?! I’m assuming that the flies hatch in June in the highlands and for whatever reason they love to filter up underneath the rain fly of my tent and spend the remainder of long days and evenings buzzing and bumping against the thin fabric. The particular tent model that I use–a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1–features an open roof for fair weather evening star gazing (only a thin netting material). However, Roan Mountain is not a fair weather location; the rainfly is just about permanently on during the evenings! Thus, my view from my back was often hundreds of small, medium and large flies (with the occasional lost bee), bumping against the rainfly to no particular rhythm. One neat deviation from that soundtrack was when it would rain hard. It was somewhat magic when the rains came and the community of flying guys would go absolutely idle, dormant. Everyone, myself included, would lie quietly listening to the heavy drops. Then, the sun would return and both myself and the chorus of critters would resume activity. Everything is connected, I think, if we take the time to notice.
Weather is pretty dynamic on a sixer in Southern Appalachia, even during the late spring / early summer months. Mornings are mostly damp, the high grasses retaining dew and recent rains, making travel during the dawn hours a soaking experience. Should you encounter tight Rhododendron tunnels, that moisture can extend well over your head and bathe you top to bottom with moisture. Temperatures are typically around fifty degrees, although it can vary greatly in either direction, and winds can be stiff and consistent. When mixed together, the combination generally results in uncomfortably chilly starts. My routine during the week was to return from sunrise shooting damp and cold: I had a large rock near my campsite where I would sit, face and body to the rising sun, shoes and socks hanging in a nearby tree to dry while I took in as much thermal heat as I could from the rock. The afternoons flipped completely. A lack of vegetation along the grassy balds meant a lot of sun exposure. While absolute temperatures don’t really get above eighty or so degrees, it’s just too much sun to take consistently. So, early afternoons I found retreat inside of my tent where I would read and/or write, while keeping the company of my flying friends who were busy inspecting the integrity of my rainfly. Luckily, the Roan would typically deliver heavy clouds and/or storms at some point during the day, allowing some afternoon respite. Evenings would wash away the heat of the day with stiff winds and moisture-laden fogs, blowing the tent this way and that, and occasionally dumping torrents of rain as well.
I had the lucky fortune to spend a week camping atop Grassy Ridge Bald in the Roan Mountain Highlands earlier this June during the annual Catawba Rhododendron bloom. Passing through long stretches of unique temperate mountain grassy balds–Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Bald–via the Appalachian Trail, as well as through profuse blooms of trailside Catawba Rhododendron and Flame Azalea, the Roan Mountain Highlands are perhaps the most spectacular location on my annual photography and camping schedule. Along the saddle of Grassy Ridge Bald, which if I understand the map correctly extends out into Mitchell County, Western North Carolina (much of the Roan Highlands straddle the state borders of Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina), one can view some of the most noteworthy NC landmark peaks: Grandfather and Grandmother Mountains (and, yes, that blocky-ass condominium complex on Sugar Mountain), the Linville Gorge complete with Hawksbill and Tablerock Mountain, and the regal Black Mountains home to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell. I make it my goal to set camp and not drop the mountain for the duration, even if it would be easier to take a daily hike back down to the car to restock water and supplies. There’s something important to me about leaving the car behind and not laying eyes on it until the day I pack and leave the mountain (not sure I understand that yet, but it is nonetheless).
The greatest benefit of camping on location is the ability to quickly respond to changing conditions–there is no packing, transportation, hiking etc. involved in getting somewhere. On this particular afternoon, clear conditions in the early morning hours allowed me to remove the rainfly from my tent, giving the flies a break from their busy volunteer work. Lying on my back reading a book I was able to keep an eye above as the skies became increasingly thick with interest. Knowing that the conditions wouldn’t last long at this elevation, I quickly slipped back into my still-wet boots and sprinted out to a number of locations I had previously scouted during the week. The dappled light of the passing skies created some beautiful green/blue scenics, including the one here from the saddle of Grassy Ridge. A short couple hours later the high clouds were obscured by lower level fog and the bright landscape was transformed into an invisible trace of itself, winds and moisture serving to cool my skin to a once again uncomfortable temperature. Sunset was out. Luckily, I had the ability to take the short window of opportunity atop the Roan and make something of it! For me and the flies, it was back to the tent and back to the hope of another morning and another opportunity to see something incredible! 2015 on Grassy Ridge in the Roan Highlands was another wonderful season of photography and camping.