Great Seal Sate Park Part 2: Signs of Spring

Wiggs and I were so impressed by our first visit to Great Seal on March 5 that when another Friday rolled around we decided to make a second visit. This time, on March 19, it was exactly two weeks later. In the spring, two weeks can make a big difference. The first time we went it was a frigid late-winter day and we didn’t see anything green. This time, the earth was showing clear signs of life, and I was very excited to watch the world waking up.

Mossy rocks on the Shawnee Ridge Trail

Seeing Red

Last year I became interested in (read: obsessed with) foraging mushrooms after reading Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone. It was the perfect year for it, with working from home during the beginning of the pandemic allowing me to spend more time than usual out among the trees. One of the first mushrooms I found when I started going to the woods was the scarlet cup, or Sarcoscypha mushroom. Since then, the Sarcoscypha has had a special place in my heart.

I was hoping to find some of these bright red beauties on this trip to Great Seal, since I hadn’t found any two weeks earlier. I had even made a crocheted version of the mushroom that morning, and I brought it to the woods with me just in case I found a real one to compare it to. (You know. For science.)

I started the hike as I usually do in the spring: With my eyes glued to the ground, hoping to catch a spot of bright red on the forest floor. I saw no mushrooms for the first few miles, but Wiggs spotted trout lily, with its characteristic mottled leaves and graceful, droopy white flowers. I remember finding and learning that plant last year on my first forays, and seeing them again made me smile.

White trout lily, Erythronium albidum

We climbed the steep slope to the summit of Sugarloaf once again, and again, I marveled at how hard of a climb it was, especially for Ohio. We came down the other side, took the correct turn this time, and continued on the Shawnee Ridge trail. At this point I had not seen any mushrooms, and I had given up trying to find one, working on the assumption that it was still too early.

Then, out of nowhere, as we were cresting the ridge on Bald Hill, I spotted one: a bright red scarlet cup partially hidden beneath a leaf. I gasped dramatically and dropped to my knees in front of the fungus. I was delighted. I took out my crocheted version and compared it to the real one: the outside of my handmade one is slightly too pink, but it’s pretty close.

Wiggs found another cluster nearby, and the more we saw, the more we kept finding. I love the vivid blood red of the inside of the cup and how starkly it contrasts with the earth tones of the woods, how tiny they are and how they tend to cluster together. To me the scarlet cup is a welcome sign of all the life that is to come, a harbinger of morels, pheasant back, mayapple, ramps, and flowers. I have so many fond memories of last year’s spring, and I can’t wait for another one traipsing in the woods.

Cluster of Sarcoscypha sp. mushrooms, also known as “scarlet cups” or “red elf cups.”

Rock On

Since we started slightly earlier this week than we did the last time, and since we now have an extra hour of daylight, we had more time to go farther on the trails on this second visit. Instead of turning around at the top of Bald Hill, this time we continued down the ridge, into the valley, and up another hill.

We found another couple of tiny Sarcoscypha and plenty more trout lily. There were a few rusting pieces of abandoned cars and a little pond that will probably be a mosquito paradise in a few months. The trail made a few steep switchbacks up another hill, and then meandered for a while down in a valley, before coasting upwards.

The path grew rockier, with boulders strewn here and there. Wiggs commented that he remembered a friend telling him about a “rock garden” around here somewhere, and soon enough, we were at the top of another hill and sauntering among a jumble of mossy sandstone boulders.

The Great Seal boulders

It quickly became clear that these were great boulders – bouldering boulders, the kind loved by climbers. Evidence of this fact was everywhere: chalk dust was smeared on slopers, crimps, and comfy jugs all around the area. I was thrown back to my climbing days in college and grad school, and the feeling in this place was not unlike that of Rocktown, a beautiful bouldering area in northwest Georgia.

We dropped our packs and sampled the climbing. I walked to the top of the hill, where an abandoned foundation of an old building was buried among a field of grasses and soon-to-be-blooming wildflowers. It was sunny and crisp, and the air smelled like leaves, and like memories, and like the spring life that was about to burst forth.

The light started getting that evening slant, and we realized that it was becoming late. We bid farewell to the boulders, promising to return with someone who owned a crash pad, and headed back the way we came.

Wiggs sampling the sandstone

Spring Peepers

I’ve experienced spring differently in the past two years than I ever have before. In 2019, I was on the Appalachian Trail, and I got to watch the world waking up slowly as I walked north. I didn’t know much about mushrooms or plants then (and I still have a lot to learn), but it was a joy to watch the world become green. In 2020, like most people, I was working from home, and I observed one piece of the earth gradually sliding into bloom. This was a closer, more systematic observation than on my thru-hike, as my eyes were more trained on the minute details of a place, over and over scanning the dirt for a hint of mushroom; scanning the trees and plants for recognition.

There’s no way to pinpoint the exact time when one season tips into the next, but this hike felt like the line between cold and warm, dead and alive, the not-yet and the already-here. I love Great Seal. It’s one of those places that just has something. I’m sure I’ll be back soon to look for the little details of spring.

My crocheted Sarcoscypha
The tiniest pair of scarlet cups you ever did see

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