Pity the poor salamander. Long associated with the clammy clutter in the pockets of small boys, the amphibians are hard to glamorize. They do, after all, live under rocks. They have names like "slimy" and "shovelnose," for reasons that are entirely deserved. So the fact that the southern Appalachians are the home of the most diverse family of salamanders in the world hasn't exactly become hot news on the tourist circuit.
But for amphibian aficionados like me, Mount Rogers in southwestern Virginia has an irresistible appeal: The yonahlossee salamander lives there. All woodland salamanders share the same exquisite form, with long delicate toes, elegantly tapering tail and scaleless shining skin, but the colorful yonahlossee is the handsomest of the lot. Its name is from the Cherokee, meaning "trail of the great bear," where the salamander was first found. Yonahlossee is long (up to seven inches), lithe, slow-moving and sinuous, with a brick-red back and charcoal and ash-flecked sides.
About two dozen other species of Appalachian woodland salamanders also live near Mount Rogers, and a dozen or two more creep through crevices in the highest mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. No one knows why this is such a prime spot for salamander evolution. It may be due to the animal's preference for the cool moisture that creates a temperate rain forest in much of this high country. It may be the abundance of seeps, rotting logs and pebbly stream bottoms where salamanders like to lay their gelatinous egg masses.
Actually, White Top, a mountain a few miles away, has the thickest concentration of salamanders in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and is specially managed for their protection. But at 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers is the highest mountain in Virginia. This fact exerts an appeal just as irresistible to hikers as yonahlossee does to salamander searchers.
More than 450 miles of trails are maintained here by the Forest Service, which offers the unusual and extremely considerate amenity of circuit hikes. Thus, it's possible to hike for up to a week and come out where the car is parked without having to walk over the same trail or solicit strangers for a ride. Another amenity is the segregation of trails into those where horses are and are not permitted. Picking a footpath along a trail trampled into a muddy sewer by horses does not make for pleasant hiking. The Appalachian Trail, which crosses both Mount Rogers and White Top, is one of those reserved for foot traffic only.
One of the great things about Appalachian woodland salamanders is that they live in deep Appalachian woods. To look for them means meandering through the oldest part of the forest, where a massive leaf canopy seals in moisture. Woods like these have rushing creeks so white and pure it makes your heart ache.
Salamanders live behind draping moss curtains along these streambanks, and beneath the spongy masses of decaying trees on silent slopes. They are kings of the few square yards of forest floor they traverse in their lifetimes, preying on snails, slugs, spiders, beetles, millipedes and anything else they can wrestle their jaws around.
A funny thing happened as I began to move quietly through last winter's wet leaves, gently lifting up the smaller rocks and logs as I went. Time disappeared. Nothing existed but huge boulders tufted with ferns, nothing moved but my own hands, nothing at all made any noise. An hour went by, and more.
Have you ever wondered what lives under rocks? I found white rootlets, black tunnels, pieces of snail shells, acorns, insect parts, ant nests, spiders and matted spider webs. Occasionally I'd even spot a salamander, its elastic form wriggling for the nearest cover. I'd peer closely and try to make out what kind it was, but I couldn't. Many salamanders are distinguishable from each other by only the most minute of differences. But it didn't matter. All that mattered was that I had a salamander to watch, to admire, to wonder at.
Eventually I realized what was happening. It had been so long I had completely forgotten. I was playing.
My reverie was broken by a faint but distinct cry of help from the woods beyond. I stumbled over slick rocks and through a braid of streams to find a young woman sobbing on a signpost. "I'm lost," she cried pitifully. "I've been wandering around for hours." Her knee was gashed, her hair wild. She and 16 others had been sent out by an adventure camp on solo hikes with map and pack, but sans compass (and probably the knowledge of how to use one) or first aid kit. And it was starting to rain.
Much of Mount Rogers is legally designated as wilderness, which means that nature, not man, dominates. Manmade structures, including shelters, footbridges, signs, blazes and trails, can be built and maintained only according to certain narrow stipulations -- and they can't be counted on to be in good condition. Naturally, there are more risks hiking in or near wilderness, and back-country skills become more important. It hardly seems fair, not to mention prudent, to send inexperienced teenagers into the wilderness on their own.
To make matters worse, the young lady didn't know what her final destination was supposed to be. After a few hugs, she calmed down and we wrested ponchos from each other's packs. By now raindrops were sliding off the leaves and spattering on our heads. "Always go downstream when you're lost," I told her. "Take any trail that heads down, and you'll end up on a road. Then you'll find somebody to ask." I hope I was right.
By now it was the middle of the afternoon, which is not the approved time to look for salamanders. During warm summer days they tunnel down into the cool, moist depths beneath rocks. The classic salamander search strategy is to go out in the woods on a wet spring night wearing a coal miner's headlamp. Then, salamanders are likely to be traveling to breeding ponds and looking for mates, or foraging on the surface of the ground where they can be easily spotted. The dim green gloom of the fog that frequently lays in the forests of Mount Rogers seemed springlike to me, but the salamanders had disappeared.
It was a shock to emerge into the unexpected openness of the Crest Zone. Just below the peak are 5,000 acres of stone outcrops and massive rhododendron thickets, punctuated by small stands of spruce and patches of grassy meadow. The rocky ridges and 360-degree vista are often compared to the open country of the west, and if the views here are not always clear, they are just as spectacular for their misty, dreamy quality, with gauzy blue ranges suspended in ever paler reflection of each other.
But the dead trees along Mount Rogers's slopes are clearly visible, even through air thick with humidity. Acid rain? Not according to the Forest Service, which reports that several years of research have not uncovered any direct relationship. The spruce bark beetle and balsam woolly aphid are blamed for much of the damage.
Some southern balds -- elevated mountain areas that are bare of forest -- are thought to be naturally formed, but the Crest Zone is a result of turn-of-the-century logging, followed by burning and grazing. It is not included within wilderness boundaries, and the Forest Service fights the inevitable reversion to forest by allowing a herd of dappled, semi-wild ponies to roam freely year-round. Colts are sold at auction at the adjoining Grayson Highlands State Park in the fall. Cattle also keep the shrubbery down, with the occasional bull adding a little excitement along a hiker's path. Rangers try to burn the area on a three-year cycle, weather and funds permitting.
The Crest Zone is too dry for salamanders, but offers several advantages both for black bears and campers. The unbelievably large rhododendrons, arched high overhead and so dense only a bear would want to penetrate them, provide dens into which no one will intrude. Catching these rhododendrons in full bloom in the last half of June is a pleasure that makes up for the accompanying bugs and thunderstorms.
Blueberries are another summer treat. And for the first time in many years, bears as well as hikers are around to enjoy them. Shot out decades ago, bears have slowly been restocked in the Mount Rogers area. It adds an indefinable zest to tenting to know there are black bears living nearby. It's still necessary to keep human food out of bear reach, but black bears are far shyer and less threatening than the grizzly bears that live out West.
Scanning the bald for bears, perched atop one of those boulders that rise solemnly from the plain, while a soft blue dusk settles over the world, is almost as pleasant as searching for salamanders. Neither animal is very easy to find. Bears at least are big enough to catch your eye when they move. Small and secretive, salamanders reveal their strange beauty only to those who stoop to look. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, part of which borders North Carolina, is 350 miles southwest of Washington. Take the Route 16 exit from Interstate 81 at Marion, Va. The visitors center, which displays large photos of resident salamanders as well as a notebook with biological information about them, is located on Route 16 about 15 miles south of Marion. An excellent high country and wilderness hiking map is available for $3; a brochure describing circuit hikes is free. These and other items of information can be obtained by contacting Mount Rogers NRA, Route 1, Box 303, Marion, Va. 24354, (703) 783-5196. Freelancer Chris Bolgiano lives in a fairly good salamander habitat in western Virginia.