Today my hike begins in front of the “mouth of the dragon”. It is actually an outcrop where the hot water cascade flows, large ice cycles form and with the steam reminds me of a dragon smiling. It is very cold and I am thankful for the Cayenne Heat Ointment I put on my hands and feet. As I head up the Peak Trail I spot another feral cat, the third I have seen and photographed in my year plus of hiking in Hot Springs National Park. I am surprised to see it, as it is the only moving creature other than my self in the lower part of the park. We both appear surprised by the sight of one and other.
I forgot what 8 degrees in the lungs feels like, it the perfect cure for any cold or flu :). By the time I reach the top of Hot Springs Mountain I am aware there are no other hikers, four legged mammals or birds sharing the trails with me. Ice is forming on my jacket sleeve where it brushes my mouth when I am taking photographs. The Forest groans and creaks with each gust of wind that travels along the trail. I find strange comfort in the thought that the Trees are voicing their displeasure with the biting cold.
When I reach the Honeysuckle Trail the surface seems to be changing and each step produces a light crunch noise. On the Floral Trail the crunching becomes louder and it feels like I am hiking on cornflakes. At the first bend all is revealed, I have been hiking on rock and pine needles over a thin surface of ice. The rain from several days ago settled just below the main trail surface, froze forming standing ice crystals and creating exposed ice flows over the larger rocks. It is unnerving to step down on what appears to be a solid earth surface and have it give way without warning. The sensation is like stepping on the edges of a fragile frozen pond. Now a cloud of icy mist is forming and my camera lenses and glasses keeping foggy over.
At the bottom of the trail I notice there is a small stream of water running through a rock culvert along Hot Springs Mountain Road. In the distance I can see small birds landing and drinking from water just before it dips under the road. I move slowly so as not to scare them away from their current location. Every breath I take fogs over my eye piece and I often shoot without being sure what birds are being captured. To be honest it was not until I arrived home I discover what birds were at the water flow. The group includes two Raspberry Finches, a White-Throated Sparrow and numerous male and female Juncos. This only the second time I have captured a raspberry finch in the park.
On my journey home one last surprise appears along the waist height stone wall that borders the park. Under the lip of the top stone slabs a lovely Carolina Wren is peeking out at me. I am amazed at how it can hang off the side of the stones, it is a wonderful place to get out of the freezing mist.
Thank you all for keeping me company on this very cold hike in Hot Springs National Park.