Let there be light Take a ‘foxfire’ hike to Anna Ruby Falls

The Mountain Traveler- Summer 2018

In the daytime, White County’s Anna Ruby Falls is a spectacular sight to behold. But some people also go there at night – to see a living thing that mysteriously glows in the dark.

The phenomenon is called bioluminescence – a process by which a plant or animal generates its own light. The best-known example is the firefly (a.k.a. “lightning bug). And in the forests of southern Appalachia, there’s also a glowing fungus called “foxfire” that grows on rotting logs.

David Carswell, co-manager of the visitor center at Anna Ruby Falls, said the famous fungus does exist within the Chattahoochee National Forest, but you’ll only see it if you stumbe across it while walking through the woods at night.

“It’s random and you just have to get lucky,” he said. “And it’s not in the same place every year.”

But alongside the paved, half-mile Anna Ruby Falls trail, there’s a different sort of nocturnal neon. It looks like hundreds of tiny pinpricks of light, resembling a field of stars.

And who’s responsible for this miniature light show? Not a fungus, but an insect: Orfelia fultoni.

“It’s a type of gnat or fly larvae,” Carswell said. “The light attracts its prey, which are flying insects. In Alabama, it’s found in caves. But here, it’s found on seepages – water flowing across rocks near the trail.”

He said the interpretive center continues to refer to it as “foxfire” because it’s easier to say than Orfelia fultoni.

And the fact that it’s not “real” foxfire has not deterred people from coming to the guided night hikes that are offered in May and June.

“The walks are very popular,” Carswell said. “We’ve had to limit the number of people, for safety reasons, but we’ve been doing two hikes per week instead of one.”

To see the schedule and purchase tickets, visit the Cradle of Forestry website at cfaia.org. Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for kids ages 3-10. No children under age 2 are permitted.

Hikers should wear closed-toe shoes (no flip-flops), and bring a flashlight that either has a red-light mode or has red cellophane taped over the bulb.

“Red lights don’t interfere with your night vision,” Carswell explained.

And if it turns out not to be a very good night for the “foxfire,” all is not lost.

“In June, even if the foxfire isn’t the best, the lightning bugs put on a show,” he said.

This story comes from our free publication, Mountain Traveler magazine

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