If you’ve walked any part of the Appalachian Trail, you've seen hikers walking with their dog. Some are doing a half-day hike; others are going all the way. But why limit yourself to a dog? How would you like to hike the Appalachian Trail with a goat?
According to the Baatany Project, Goat #210, a male, would win the "Mr. Congeniality" award, and is on the short list of goats that might like to thru-hike the A.T. The three-year-old is a fine young man who inherited his mother's friendly outgoing personality and silky mohair.
OK. So you can’t take him all the way to Maine, but you can see him and his pals on the trail at Roan Mountain.
Roans Go To The Goats
The Roans, a ridge on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, rise above 6,000 feet to offer spectacular views of the surrounding, rumpled, countryside. Grandfather Mountain, Table Mountain, and Hawksbill in Linville Gorge lie to the east, and Mt. Mitchell to the southwest. The Appalachian Trail crosses Carvers Gap and in 2.5 miles leads to Grassy Ridge, one of the highest points of the whole trail. Hikers remember the Roans as one of the most scenic spots of their whole A.T. experience. And no matter how hot it is at the foot of the mountain, a breeze keeps hikers cool in the Roans.
Northern trees, such as fir and spruces, cover a small pocket of the mountains. But most of the Roans are open and bald, a misnomer because balds are not bare soil. They hold shrubs and grasses instead of being filled with trees. But it is a constant challenge to keep the Roans bald. Left to their own devices, nuisance plants such as Canadian blackberries will spread and enclose the area. Once blackberries take over, most other plants don't stand a chance. This is where the goats come in.
Since 2008, the Baatany Project has brought up a herd of about 30 angora goats to feed on blackberry cane. They're located along the A.T., just northbound from Carver's Gap, between Jane Bald and the turnoff to Grassy Ridge Bald.
"Goats are good candidates because they’re browsers. They prefer woody plants over grass," explains Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Southern Region in Asheville, North Carolina.
The goats are kept focused on the work at hand by being enclosed in an area by electric fences, hidden behind rhododendrons bushes as they munch away. Trained Great Pyrenees dogs keep them in line, and keep visitors out of the paddock. In England, hikers walk with goats and sheep scampering about without needing dogs and fences for protection, but as Julie points out, "in the Southern Appalachians, we have to deal with bears and coyotes."
Jamey Donaldson, a volunteer biologist in charge of the project, spends the summer on Roan Mountain. This year the goats will be taken up on June 19 and will stay up there until mid-September. Every two to three weeks, Donaldson, helped by volunteers, moves the enclosure, giving the goats a chance at new blackberry cane. Mr. Donaldson and students from East Tennessee State University have monitored plant growth both where the goats have grazed, as well as control plots where no grazing has occurred. They are in the process of analyzing the data.
"Trudy's" goats were the first ones on Roan Mountain. Ms. Trudy, a northern Virginia woman who prefers to go by her first name, donated 19 goats to begin the project. She looked at this work as the goats' retirement program; otherwise, they would have ended up at the meat market. Another goat farmer, Todd Eastin, who works with Mr. Donaldson, brings his goats up to browse as well. In the winter, Mr. Eastin keeps all the goats on his farm.
The project is financed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Open Area Management Program, Friends of Roan Mountain, the Adopt-a Goat-Project, and other groups. Ms. Judkins encourages supporters to adopt a goat. For $50, you get a photo and lock of hair from your goat and a chance to name it.
Baxter is the dog in charge of the goats. He lost his partner, Bean, to an unexpected illness. You can adopt Baxter as well, but I don't think you can rename him. Keeping a working dog working is not a cheap proposition. Baxter eats 10 to 15 pounds of dog food every week plus there are vet bills. The project is also looking for a second dog.
Other sections of Roan Mountain are managed by mowing. Volunteers wield weed eaters, and the U.S. Forest Service uses track mowers. In the past, cattle grazed on the bald, but cows are a lot more work. Nevertheless, the Forest Service is looking into granting a permit for farmers to bring up their cows to help keep Roan bald.
Flowers and Bushes
Carvers Gap is also the entrance to the Rhododendron Gardens filled with Catawba (purple) rhododendrons. No one planted the rhododendron bushes and only nature prunes them. To protect these outstanding bushes from being carried off by vandals, the gardens became part of Pisgah National Forest in 1941.
Now thousands of visitors come to see the blooms in late June. The Gardens have a network of paved wheelchair accessible trails with picnic tables, and barbecue stands. You'll feel like you’re in hobbit land as you walk under dark spruce and fir trees and duck through tunnels of twisted rhododendron branches.
The Roans are very hospitable to a range of outdoor enthusiasts from A.T. thru-hikers and day hikers to photographers, and picnickers. In mid-June, many visitors don't make to the goat site. They’re diverted by the variety of plants on the way to Grassy Bald. Michaux’s Saxifrage, cow parsnip, bluets, strawberry plants, and cinquefoil abound but it's the rare Gray's Lily that attracts visitors.
Asa Gray, the 19th Century botanist, called the Roans "the most beautiful mountain east of the Rockies.” Gray first found the lily in these mountains; the flower was eventually named after him, Lilium grayi. Gray’s Lilies have small, funnel-shaped flowers that dangle downward. These flowers, crimson outside and orange-red inside with reddish-purple spots, sit on top of slender stems with whorled leaves. With luck, Catawba rhododendrons and flame azaleas will flower at the same time. August brings mounds of blueberries.
The Rhododendron Festival will be held on June 15-16. But hopefully the rhododendrons will keep blooming for a while longer.
To keep up with the goat project, volunteer and adopt a goat, look at www.baatany.org.