First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s more easily understood if you think of it as a climatic fever. When you have a fever, your temperature is elevated, yet your body experiences chills as it attempts to fight off infection. This is precisely the situation in which our planet finds itself, attempting to deflect the worst ravages of industrial extraction by hobbling the climate on which industry depends for ease of extraction and transportation. In the process, however, there are numerous side-effects which most media outlets conveniently blame on the natural world rather than the extractive industries which are truly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

This pattern of climatic destabilization – which includes the undermining of established patterns of temperature and precipitation globally – is an increasingly common phenomenon throughout our world and represents another aspect of climate change. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and highly inhospitable global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

At Occoneechee Mountain, this climatic transition was more subdued on my first visit of 2018 than it was in 2017. In 2017, there were flowering plants of every stripe putting forth new growth by January. When I visited Occoneechee Mountain in February of this year on the other hand, there were comparatively few flowering plants in bloom. There were some, however, and there were other signs of spring to be found as well, despite the fact that spring in central North Carolina doesn’t typically arrive until the beginning of April at the earliest.

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential and unseasonable rainstorms that have recently become common in central North Carolina during the winter months. The land was still drenched from the latest rainstorm, and with temperatures in the 60s it felt more like April than February. I got out of my car, started hiking the Mountain Loop Trail, and tried to keep solid footing on ground that might as well have been the last remains of a mud pit.

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

References:

Erythronium americanum,” Missouri Botanical Garden, accessed March 7th, 2018

Callery pear (Bradford pear), Pyrus calleryana,” Invasive.org, accessed March 7th, 2018,

Advertisements

The Beauty of a Winter Hike on the Cabe Lands Trail

by Mark Miles

Winter isn’t typically considered the ideal time to go for a hike. Most people dislike the cold, snow, and limited hours of daylight–which can be daunting. But there are also perks to hiking in winter: 1) there’s greater visibility in a deciduous forest due to the absence of leaves, 2) there’s added photographic appeal because snow will provide accentuation to the contours of the land, and 3) there are fewer difficulties with parking due to the general preoccupation with indoor activities at this time of year. So, in short, there are good reasons to look for a park in your area even when the thermometer is dipping below freezing.

The perks of winter hiking were recently made clear to me when I took the Cabe Lands Trail at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know this park is one of my favorite hiking destinations, with so much acreage and so many trails that I still haven’t covered all of them in the year and a half I’ve been hiking there on a monthly basis. The Cabe Lands Trail was one of those unexplored areas–though I covered some of it in June of last year on another hike (full story here)–and so on the third weekend of December I decided to remedy the situation by hiking the remainder of it for the first time.

I arrived at the Cabe Lands Access in late afternoon on Sunday, and there were only two cars in the parking lot. This is amazing because in summertime parking space for the Cabe Lands is virtually nonexistent, as I discovered when I hiked part of it last year. In winter you’d be forgiven for thinking this isn’t even the same trail simply on the basis of the lack of crowds, which so thoroughly characterize the area near the Eno River Rock Quarry in summertime, when the appeal of cool water on a hot day is tantalizing.

Getting out of my car, I was greeted by the cold but fresh air, which immediately invigorated me. Starting on the Cabe Lands Trail, I took the western fork when I reached the junction with Eno Quarry Trail, and from there I headed toward the quarry itself. My plan was to circle the quarry, return to the junction, then resume the Cabe Lands Trail for the remainder of its length, going in a clockwise direction. After traipsing through a forest of pine, oak and beech–which allowed greater visibility due to the lack of leaves, providing a gorgeous view that extended for miles into the distance at some points–I reached a beautiful creek that marks the edge of the land bordering the quarry. The water in the creek was so pure and clear, I was almost tempted to take a sip. Instead I took several photos, including the following.

Crossing the little creek, I reached the Eno River Rock Quarry itself. The difference between summer and winter was absolutely striking. Whereas the entire area surrounding the quarry had been full of splashes, laughter, conversation, and flirtation when I visited in June, there was now stillness, peace, calm, and tranquility of an almost preternatural depth. In the absence of human activity, the quarry was something out of a dream, reclining lazily in the embrace of the forest and waiting patiently for someone to come and appreciate its beauty.

Of the three other people I saw during my hike on this day, two of those people were at the quarry, some distance ahead of me on the trail that snakes around the body of water. They appeared to be father and daughter, and the pensive silence between them reflected the silence of the water around them. Something about the way they walked, with heads bowed and voices hushed, conveyed a sense of reverence that was entirely appropriate at this site where at least two people have drowned over the past fifteen years. Though I didn’t ask them, I did wonder if they were family members of one of the two young men who never returned from the murky waters of the Eno River Rock Quarry.

Passing around the western edge of the quarry, I came to the spot where divers congregate to make flying leaps into the sixty-foot waters in summertime. The place was utterly transformed, so calm and quiet that the call of a house wren would’ve reverberated across the waters with the audacity of a freight train. Despite the ideal acoustics, I was too enamored with the reverential silence of the area to do anything but proceed with hushed footsteps.

After finishing my circuit of the Eno River Rock Quarry, I returned by the way I came, arriving soon thereafter at the junction where I had originally diverged from Cabe Lands Trail. Taking a left at the junction, I noticed that the trail started to descend rapidly, taking me from the height of Laurel Ridge to the south bank of the Eno River in about five minutes. The trail was exceptionally rocky and strewn with river pebbles, highlighting the fact that this portion of the Eno was once adjacent to a working mill, which had extensive earthworks and employed stone from the banks of the river in its construction.

Before reaching the ruins of Cabe Mill, however, I noticed a ford in the Eno where rocks provided an ideal vantage point to take a photo of the river on its eastward course. Balancing tenuously on stones as the frigid water gurgled under my feet, I marveled at the sight in front of me. It was easily one of the best views of the Eno that I’ve seen in a long time, ranking among my top three views of an exceptionally photogenic river in an exceptionally photogenic park.

After satisfying my photographic impulse, I returned to the bank in time to notice the third and final person who crossed my path on this hike. He had a small dog running ahead of him and quickly stooped to leash her before getting close–which was probably a good thing judging from her apparent lack of socialization. Passing the man and his dog, I finally started to notice definite features of an abandoned mill, including deep rivets in the ground and partial stone embankments, which formed millraces long ago. I had to go some way off the trail to get a better view, but it didn’t take long before the ruins of Cabe Mill came into view.

As always, I was fascinated by the stonework, so intricate and well-made that a significant portion of it continues to stand after two centuries. In my research regarding the history of the site, I wasn’t able to find out the exact date of the mill’s construction. But if Cabe Mill is contemporaneous with Holden Mill, another historic site at Eno River State Park, then it was built in the early nineteenth century. The Cabe family–who owned the mill and lived nearby–settled in this area in 1758, when Barnaby Cabe immigrated to North Carolina from Britain. He was Presbyterian and as a result had a high estimation of the value of education, which prompted him to fund the construction of a schoolhouse nearby. The real handiwork of the Cabe Family, however, was the mill which bore their name, the ruins of which were standing in front of me in the middle of the woods by the Eno River.

Realizing the light was waning and the day fast approaching an end, I left the ruins of Cabe Mill and started my ascent from the south bank of the Eno through Cabe’s Gorge on my way toward the parking lot. I tried to envision what the area must have looked like two centuries ago, when so much of the land surrounding the Eno River was heavily industrialized and much more densely populated. It would’ve been virtually unrecognizable, in addition to being much more dirty and polluted than it is now. Though it’s easy to take for granted a place like Eno River State Park–which receives very little public funding from the state of North Carolina and stands in a position of increasing economic precarity due to budgetary shortfalls–it’s worth remembering that without this park the area surrounding it would very quickly be turned into a wasteland, where the beauty of a winter hike in the woods would be nothing more than the memory of a bygone era.

References:

Anderson, Jean Bradley, “The History of Fews Ford,” Eno Journal, Vol. 8:1 via Eno River Association, accessed January 2nd, 2018.

Cabe Lands Trail,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed January 2nd, 2018.

Cabe Lands Trail,” Hiking Project, accessed January 2nd, 2018.

Hiking through the Ruins of an Old Dam on the Pump Station Trail

by Mark Miles

At the beginning of October, I took my first hike around one of the most remarkable and historic locations in Durham, North Carolina. I had no idea before visiting exactly what I would find, and I very nearly missed my hike because of the virtually nonexistent parking–which consists of a few spots on the side of a gravel road running through what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Despite the abysmal parking, the land surrounding the Pump Station Trail at Eno River State Park–which crisscrosses the old dam for the City of Durham–is a testament to the power of water and its crucial role in society. It’s also the perfect place for an adventure you’ll never forget.

After parking along the side of the road, I got out and started looking for the trail itself. It wasn’t readily apparent, but after a little searching I found the trailhead and started my adventure. The first quarter-mile of the Pump Station Trail was fairly nondescript, passing through a forest of oak, pine, and maple in every direction. To my left there was a steep embankment that led to the edge of a small creek, but otherwise there was no indication of what lay ahead.

After traipsing along the trail for ten minutes or so, taking photos whenever the opportunity presented itself, I started getting the idea that the Pump Station Trail might be something remarkable. The first indication of this was a crumbling brick-and-mortar structure to my right that appeared out of nowhere. It was about ten feet tall and stood fifteen feet or so from the trail. I took a couple quick photos and continued on my way, soon finding a sign that warned of “dangers associated with falls.” I duly took note and proceeded with caution.

The next indication of the remarkable nature of the Pump Station Trail shortly revealed itself. Following a side-trail that veered to the north, I saw the ruins of an old building–which I would later find out was the pump house for the dam–looming in front of me. The land rose on the left and descended to the right, allowing two clear entries to the decaying building. I took the left branch of the trail first and found myself gaping over the edge of a wall from a height of fifteen feet. There were weird and indecipherable mechanical structures inside it that simply begged for closer inspection, which led me to take a closer look.

Backtracking from the high place where I found myself, I walked through the doorway to the pump house. The air was cool and musty, and there was the definite impression that this building had held a great deal of water at some point in the past. The bluish stone that made up the majority of the structure was quite beautiful in its own way and gave the place a faintly otherworldly mystique.

The first weird mechanical structure in the pump house to catch my attention was a giant screw standing three feet out of the ground. I’m not an engineer, so I’m not in a position to say what this was, but it was quite fascinating and invited a host of questions about how the pump house worked when it was still in operation.

The second weird mechanical structure to catch my attention was a very large pipe, a foot and a half in diameter, that stood not far from the giant screw. There was an accumulation of dirt, leaves, and other debris that clogged its mouth, but it was clear to see that at one point it had been a major conduit for the transfer of water from the dam.

Coming out of the pump house, I caught a glimpse of it from another angle which gives a better idea of the size of the structure. The height is roughly fifteen feet and gives pause for thought when you realize that the part of the pump house that still survives is merely the foundation of the original structure. The building itself, which stood on top of what you see here, extended another ten or fifteen feet upwards to make for an imposing edifice.

After inspecting the pump house, I continued to the east and found a series of connected chambers standing about eight feet tall which I would later find out formed the filter room, where the real action took place. To the best of my knowledge, this is where the water would have undergone coagulation, flocculation, and sedimentation. Through this series of interrelated processes, a chemical is introduced into the water which causes debris and organic matter to clump; the water is then allowed to stand for some length of time in order for the debris to form “flocs” or clumps; then a rake-like device is passed through the water to remove those clumps of debris. Presumably all of this would have taken place within the filter room pictured above, though there may have been differences in the process when the old dam was constructed in 1887.

Around the filter room, there were rolling embankments of a clearly man-made origin, which enhanced the sense of otherworldly mystique that I had encountered in the pump house. The sunlight bursting through the branches of the surrounding forest provided the perfect accent to the scene, and it was easy to forget that this site had once been heavily mechanized and much more obtrusive to the surrounding forest. But nature has a way of reclaiming things when left to her own devices.

Circling around the filter room and the pump house, I came back to where I had diverged from the Pump Station Trail. Following the trail again, I shortly came to a dry creekbed which extended to the south for some distance. I got the feeling there was something noteworthy in that direction, but I had no idea just how noteworthy it would be.

Drawing closer to whatever it was as I continued to hike southward down the dry creekbed, I started to get the feeling I was entering a movie set for Lord of the Rings. Ahead of me I could see stone-and-mortar walls of a genuinely colossal scale, through which meandered the creekbed which had somehow regained the water which was missing earlier.

Coming closer to the walls of what turned out to be an old and defunct dam, I started to feel as if I was merely an ant surveying the work of giants. These walls were absolutely immense, reaching skyward for a solid forty feet before cresting in a massive embankment that looked like a steep hill in the surrounding terrain. I stood and marveled at the sight for several minutes, taking photos from every possible angle and wondering for the life of me how people without computers and forklifts could ever have built such a thing.

Deciding that I had to get a view from the top of the embankment, I progressed westward until I found a stretch of ground that wasn’t quite as steep and proceeded to climb it very gingerly. Upon reaching the top, I started following the clearly identifiable line of stone and mortar that ran eastward back toward the walls of the old dam. This was trickier than I expected due to the steep incline of the surrounding terrain, and I began to realize why there was a sign warning of “dangers associated with falls.” Coming as close to the edge of the forty-foot dropoff as I could, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed back the way I came.

Rejoining the Pump Station Trail, I resumed my hike in a westward direction and soon found myself in the middle of a lovely fern grove, which could easily have come out of The Hobbit. The sun in the distance illuminated the area with a calming radiance and helped to settle my spirits after the excitement of climbing to the edge of a sheer forty-foot dropoff.

Following the full circuit of the Pump Station Trail, I covered another mile before finding myself back where I started. This was when I realized I hadn’t gotten a good photo of a fascinating structure near the dam which had caught my attention from the moment I saw it.

Retracing my steps back to the walls of the old dam, I found what I was looking for: a stone tower of some sort that rose about twelve feet over the surrounding terrain. It was positioned in proximity to the walls of the old dam and seemed to have been built to overlook the spillway.

Passing to the south of the tower, I found this very interesting crenellation in it. I still don’t know what purpose this tower served, but it seems to have been designed to stand in the middle of the surrounding reservoir and to allow access to the lower levels of the body of water. Perhaps it was a monitoring station or a well or a gigantic vent pipe for allowing air pressure to interact with a subterranean pipeline. Whatever it was, it was endlessly fascinating and gave much food for thought.

Walking back to my car, I found myself reflecting on the beauty and scale of the ruins of the old dam. Beyond that, I found myself thinking how the reason for the construction of such an elaborate and awe-inspiring feat of engineering was something as simple as water. For it’s water that powers our way of life, whether we realize it or not. It’s water that provides nourishment, electricity, cleansing, irrigation, recreation, and beauty to all of our lives. It’s water that provides the basis for human society, without which none of us would be alive at this very moment. And it’s water that deserves our respect, our admiration, and our unceasing effort to protect it at all costs.

References:

Eno River Park Map,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed Aug. 31st, 2017.

January — Pump Station,” Eno River Association, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Kueber, Gary, “Durham Water Company — Eno River Pumping Station,” Open Durham, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Schwantes, Jay P., “Pump Station Area,” Eno Trails, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Water Treatment Process,” Durham, North Carolina, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Hiking to Eno River Rock Quarry, a Swimming Hole with a History

by Mark Miles

When I think of quarries, I generally think of big holes in the ground with levels upon levels of excavation that are devoid of life and inhospitable to anyone with an ounce of sense. What I don’t think of is a swimming hole in the middle of a state park that, despite two deaths in the past ten years, has nonetheless become one of the most popular summer hangouts in the area. Now that I’ve visited the Eno River Rock Quarry in Durham, North Carolina, I’ve begun to think of quarries in terms which highlight the simultaneous beauty and lethality surrounding so many of our culture’s byproducts.

When I arrived a few weeks ago at the parking lot for the Cabelands access at Eno River State Park–which leads to the quarry–I got my first clue that this was going to be a memorable experience. Unlike most other parking lots at state parks in my area of central North Carolina, this one was full to bursting. There was literally nowhere to park at all; a sign at the entrance even proclaimed the fact. Turning my car around in frustration and muttering a few choice words, I was ready to leave in a huff. However the park ranger on duty noticed my reaction and called out to me. I had my windows open and responded, half-expecting to be told to move out of the way. Instead he told me there was room to park now since a few cars had just left. Pleasantly surprised at my turn of luck, I found a spot and started my hike on Laurel Bluffs Trail.

Through the first mile of trails leading to the quarry, there wasn’t much scenery apart from a forest of oak and pine. A black snake crossed my path, but I didn’t have my camera ready and wasn’t able to get a shot before he disappeared to my right. Otherwise there was little wildlife apart from the other groups of hikers, mostly composed of students from Duke University and neighboring colleges, who had decided to make a day of it.

After twenty minutes of solid hiking, I was beginning to think the quarry was little more than a rumor and a myth. Then I saw the first sign: a creek bisected the trail and had to be forded before I could reach the other side. Crossing the creek, I crested a small hill and got my first glimpse of the quarry itself.

Of course I’d seen pictures of the swimming hole on Instagram, since some of my followers live in the Durham area and go hiking nearby. The quarry was nonetheless much different than I expected, looking for all the world like nothing more than a peaceful lake in the middle of a state park, the handiwork of nature and wilderness. Yet I was aware that it had been a working rock quarry at one time, and from the signs around the site I could see that it was much deeper than a traditional lake, with no shoreline to speak of but instead an immediate sixty-foot dropoff from the surrounding land to the lake bottom. Still, all looked pleasant and peaceful on the surface.

After passing the quarry, I knew I wanted to explore further north and west along Laurel Bluffs Trail. I’d never hiked this section of Eno River State Park, so the allure of unexplored terrain was too much to resist. Continuing on the same trail past the northeast corner of the quarry, I noticed several piles of very large and imposing rock, which were part of the legacy of the old quarry from what I could tell. These rock piles were adjacent to the Eno River and bordered the floodplain, where the trail now led.

On the opposite edge of the floodplain, the land crested in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rows upon rows of pine trees that spread out in front of me were a definite change in scenery. Their appearance was uncanny primarily because of their grid-like layout, as if someone had planted all of these trees at once and laid them out just so as to be ideally spaced for a future harvest. On that basis I would guess the area is a pine plantation, which will probably be chopped down in whole or in part at some point in the not too distant future.

After passing the ostensible pine plantation–which was the first section of Laurel Bluff itself–I reached a grove of laurels which encroached the trail on all sides, leaving barely enough room for two people to walk side by side. Presumably these were the laurels that had lent their name to the trail. To my surprise they reached a height of seven feet or so, thereby obscuring my sight and lending the impression that I was passing through some kind of vegetative labyrinth.

At last the laurels began to clear, and the forest regained her spaciousness, revealing a small gorge where a creek crossed the path of the trail. The bridge which crossed the creek at this point was very charming and provided the perfect opportunity to take a brief rest, which was much-needed at this point.

Continuing past the bridge and another small creek, I reached the last portion of Laurel Bluff. There wasn’t much to see in this section of woods, but the gurgling of the Eno to the north was a calming and familiar presence that kept my feet moving.

At last I came out of the forest and was greeted by shoulder-high blackberry bushes and mixed vegetation, accompanied by the dull roar of traffic not far in the distance. The brightness of my surroundings was a mild shock after the pleasantly diffuse light of the forest, but it matched the tenor of the sonic onslaught. Before long the trail passed under an overpass and led to the the Pleasant Green Access, where the trail ended.

Turning around, I retraced my steps over the mile and a half that had originally led me away from the quarry, all the while passing people in bathing suits with flotation devices who were making their exodus. At last I rounded a corner and saw the quarry again, now with the light of late afternoon bathing it in a golden glow. It seemed as if nothing bad could ever happen in such a place.

And yet–as I was to find out in my research for this article–there have been two deaths in the past ten years at the quarry. One took place in 2008 and the other in 2015. In the first instance, Ian Creath, an eighteen-year-old from a nearby university, drowned after attempting to retrieve a raft which had floated forty or fifty yards from shore. In the second instance, Lamont Burt, Jr., a seventeen-year-old who was planning to attend college in the fall of that year, drowned after jumping from the unofficial diving hotspot on the north shore of the quarry.

Of course, the reason for these drownings goes back to the origin of the quarry. Between 1960 and 1964, Interstate 85 was being constructed not far away. Because there was a need for gravel due to the ongoing construction, a site was chosen where a sixty-foot pit with precipitous dropoffs could be sunk into the ground to gain access to all that gravel. When construction of I-85 ended in 1964, there was presumably no clear idea of how to make the site safe again, so state officials decided on the course of action which created the Eno River Rock Quarry: they flooded the sixty-foot pit with water from the adjacent Eno River and let nature take over from there.

In the end, however, it’s not nature that’s to blame for the drownings which have happened here. It’s the culture of industrialism, which views nature as nothing more than a resource to be plundered and looted at will and which fueled the construction of I-85 so many years ago. Unfortunately that culture is still alive and well today, chomping at the bit for any and every opportunity to turn nature into a graveyard and the world into a concrete slaughterhouse. And that’s all the more reason for each of us to fight like hell to preserve every bit of the natural world that we can. If we don’t, it may not be long before there’s nothing left of our world but a graveyard for our own, and every other, species.

References:

Eno Rock Quarry,” Local Wiki, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Sweat, Candace, “Despite dangers, swimmers flock to Eno River Rock Quarry,” WRAL, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Vuncannon, Douglas, “What lies beneath,” Indy Week, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina. I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.

There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.

Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.

Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail. Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily flummoxed.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

References:

Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

In Search of the Ruins of Holden Mill

by Mark Miles

Last weekend I was finally able to explore the ruins of Holden Mill at Eno River State Park. I’d been wanting to for a couple months, but finding the requisite three hours of daylight proved to be more difficult than finding honesty in a politician. I made an unsuccessful attempt in November which resulted in my turning back before reaching the mill due to lack of daylight. As a result, some of the photos in this article have more autumnal color than others; those are photos from my incomplete November hike. The photos that have more wintry color are the ones that I took last weekend. And while most of this story will be a recollection of my December hike, there will also be minor elements of my November hike interspersed. With that covered, let’s begin.

I arrived at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday afternoon to find that there were a good number of other people who had the same idea. It’s not uncommon to find a crowd here, but I figured the 40° F temperatures would be enough to dissuade my fellow Carolinians from venturing into what’s considered by many southerners to be intolerably cold weather. My assumption was wrong, but I was right in assuming that I’d be the only one not wearing anything on his head. Being the son of two midwesterners well accustomed to blizzards and snowstorms, I’m inclined to regard 40° F in December as a heatwave. Thus headwear was superfluous.

Stone Staircase by the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

Starting northward on Buckquarter Creek Trail, I rounded the curve near Outhouse Ford and continued westward, encountering a few other small groups of hikers who were finishing the trail I was starting. Before long I came to Buckquarter Creek footbridge and crossed gingerly before coming to a fork in the trail and taking the northern course. I had now come to Holden Mill Trail, which consists of two closely linked loops. The first of these is considerably larger than the second and extends from the banks of the Eno to a neighboring hill which provides decent elevation.

Ascending Wintry Hill (Mark Miles, 2016)

Cresting the hill, I noticed how the lack of foliage increased the visibility of the area considerably. When I came in November, there was still enough foliage to obscure a great deal of the surrounding landscape, giving the sense that so much legwork had been for naught. This wasn’t the case last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by how invigorating it was to see so much of the surrounding terrain with the chill December air goading me to breathe deeply of autumn’s last days. The visibility increased further still, however, when I reached a clear-cut of power-lines, which looked as if a giant had used his scythe to scalp the land of her foliage.

Powerlines Scalp the Land (Mark Miles, 2016)

By this time I was getting close. The trail had turned from westward to southward, and Tranquility Creek came into view. The trail continued on a course parallel to the creek for a little way before turning right abruptly at a shallow ford and leading me to the last stretch before the mill itself. I was pretty excited by this time and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’d seen a few photos of the mill previously, but none of them had been particularly detailed. Thus my senses were fine-tuned and ready for anything.

The first thing to come into view was the defunct dam which once blocked this stretch of the Eno. It was very primitive and appeared to extend no more than ten feet in height, though it may have stood taller when it was intact. I wasn’t able to get any decent photos of it, but there wasn’t much to photograph in any case.

Ruins Loom in the Distance (Mark Miles, 2016)

Then came the good stuff. Looming amongst the bare sycamores and oaks was a considerable stone structure that looked as if someone had transposed a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall to central North Carolina. Standing twenty feet in height and leaning ever so slightly forward, it was an imposing sight and lent an air of dubious antiquity to the landscape. In front of it stood two other fragments of the same structure, the first of which was no more than eight feet in height and the second no more than twelve. Together the three stone structures formed a kind of maze that simultaneously invited and dissuaded exploration. On the one hand curiosity urged me to take a look for the sake of posterity, but on the other hand precaution urged me to watch for falling stones from a very old structure that’s clearly seen better days. I adopted the middle path, exploring what looked safe and avoiding what didn’t.

Not-So-Hadrian’s Wall (Mark Miles, 2016)

There weren’t any plaques or signs in the area to indicate what the ruins had previously been, but I have my own ideas. The tallest structure in the back appears to have been the site for the mill-wheel, which was probably considerable in size to provide sufficient force to power the internal mechanism of the mill. The second wall may have redirected water from the adjacent canal to a spillway which emptied into the Eno. The third wall might similarly have provided the means to retain water in an enclosed area without spilling into the river prematurely.

Mill Spillway after Two Centuries (Mark Miles, 2016)

All of this is guesswork of course, but I was also able to find something more substantial than guesswork in my research. As it turns out, Holden Mill was founded as a corn, flour and saw mill in 1811 by Isaac Holden. He owned and oversaw the mill for nine years before passing it to his son, Thomas Holden in 1820. Thomas Holden expanded the mill’s workload to include cotton, oil and threshing before passing it to his son-in-law, John Lyon, in 1851. John Lyon retained the mill until 1868, when the mill was closed due to financial difficulties. For fourteen years it remained shuttered. Then, in 1882, Samuel Cole reopened the mill and changed the name from Holden Mill to Cole Mill. He oversaw the operation of the mill until 1893, when the mill closed for the second and final time. The development of factories had rendered the water-mill obsolete, and its role in the economy had become a footnote in history.

As I began the return leg of my hike, I still had visions of decaying stone structures in my head, attempting to reconstruct themselves into their original form to show me how everything worked. I still don’t know if my guesswork is accurate, but I do know one thing. The river which was the real reason for the operation of Holden Mill is the real reason why anyone should come to Eno River State Park.

How the Eno Stole My Heart (Mark Miles, 2016)

On the banks of the Eno I can hear the running water and the voice of the land, leading me to imagine how our world would be without toxic industries poisoning the water and fouling the air. On the banks of the Eno I can feel the rush of a crisp wind on my face and the sharp pull of nature on my soul, whispering to me to respect all that’s green and good in this world. On the banks of the Eno I can see that beauty is everywhere and that another world is possible, expectantly waiting for us to join in common cause to end the reign of money once and for all.

Clowns in the Woods and the Vilification of Nature

by Mark Miles

Clowns have been in the news for some time. There’s been media coverage of clowns in South Carolina and even in North Carolina where I live, in addition to many other states. In one case a man with a machete was reported to have chased one of these clowns into the woods. That incident took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is a mere thirty miles from where I live. So I’ve been thinking about clowns lately, despite my own skepticism regarding the phenomenon.

The reports of malevolent clowns that I’ve read have characterized their activity as consisting in large part of a concerted attempt to lure people into the woods by use of candy or offers of money. Obviously this sounds nonsensical, but the idea caters to certain preconceptions of clowns that have been prevalent on social media for some time, including this notorious meme of a clown in the woods.

As you probably know by now, I love the woods. If I were to choose any place in all the world to live without any consideration of economics and with only my own happiness in mind, I would choose a forest. This probably stems from my childhood, since I grew up in a residential area that was heavily wooded, and I found myself in the woods frequently as a child. Consequently the woods are a place of familiarity and comfort for me. Or at least they usually are.

With the advent of reports about clowns engaging in various sinister activities loosely related to wooded areas, my feelings have started to shift. This shift has been entirely unconscious but noticeable nonetheless. Nowhere was this shift more apparent than on a recent hike to Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, which I took earlier this month.

I arrived at the park around 5:30 pm and immediately scrutinized the trail kiosk to see where I would go for the day. I’d already explored the trails surrounding Fews Ford and the southern stretch of the Eno. But when I saw that there was a considerable expanse of forest to the north which I hadn’t yet traversed, I knew where I’d be heading.

Setting off from the trail kiosk at the park office, I joined the Buckquarter Creek Trail. Following this, I wound my way through the surrounding hills, quickly leaving the Eno in the background and descending gradually before finding Ridge Trail. Joining Ridge Trail, I continued marching steadily northward, thankfully unconcerned about clowns for the moment.

Before long, I heard the sound of rushing water ahead of me in the distance. I looked at my trusty map and determined that the sound was emanating from Buckquarter Creek itself. Reaching the creek, I looked for a bridge but instead found a line of rocks which appeared to be passable but which clearly required sure footing to cross. Before I did this, I had to take photos of the beautiful American sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) which graced the edge of the north side of Buckquarter Creek. Sadly the thought also occurred to me that it might be a good place for a malevolent clown to hide.

After taking my photos, I gingerly hopscotched across the stream, ascended the base of the eponymous ridge, took a right at the fork in the road, and joined Shakori Trail. Judging from the depiction of the trail on the map in my hand, I figured it wouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes to complete the Shakori Trail, which loops back to Ridge Trail at its northeasternmost extremity. By now the sun was noticeably fading, and I estimated that I had thirty minutes of strong daylight by which to safely navigate these unfamiliar woods.

There were, however, a few caveats. I had set out from my house without charging my phone, and it now had less than five percent power. Additionally my small digital camera which I take on hiking excursions had already died, leaving me to take photos on my phone and thereby expending more of its limited energy. Finally I had no flashlight and knew I would need to use my phone for that purpose if the woods became too dark, thereby expending more of my phone’s limited energy. All of this increased my apprehension about venturing into this stretch of woods; but I did anyway, fully cognisant that this was by far the best place in the entire park for a clown with a bad attitude to be hiding.

I could immediately tell after crossing Buckquarter Creek that the woods to the north were rarely traversed by humans. The trail was narrower, there were more sticks and branches in the way, and at points the trail itself seemed to fade into the surrounding woods. Normally this wouldn’t have bothered me; but because of the lateness of the hour and my unfamiliarity with the area, I was becoming apprehensive. Thoughts of what might be lurking in the encroaching gloom didn’t help.

Despite the depiction of Shakori Trail, there was a greater distance to walk than I was expecting. With every passing minute the sunlight waned, the trail continued, and my apprehension grew. It didn’t help that I happened to stumble upon the largest animal-droppings which I’ve ever seen on a park trail. I can’t say definitively what species made the deposit, but I’m guessing it was a bear. To the casual observer, however, it could easily have been the droppings of a clown.

After passing the poop, I continued on my way. The trail was still climbing upward at a steady rate, indicating that I hadn’t reached the top of the ridge for which Ridge Trail is named. At the same time, the sunlight was still fading. Without warning I heard a rustling in the woods to my left. There was a declivity to that side which obscured my sight, and an image of a clown with a malicious sneer momentarily intruded on my thoughts. By this time, my stomach was fully tied in knots.

Still I was determined to finish what I’d started, and no amount of rustling in the woods was going to stop me from doing that. At last the trail began to level out, and within ten minutes I saw a yellow fence-gate which marked the convergence of Shakori Trail with Ridge Trail. Relief flooded over me in an instant, but I still kept looking for clowns.

From that point onward, I kept a brisk pace. It was 6:30, and I didn’t want to extend my stay any longer than absolutely necessary. The woods were darkening noticeably by this time, and decreased visibility only increased the play of imagination. Every darkened corner of the woods seemed to be the perfect hideout for a clown; every rustle in the branches seemed to be the approach of a clown. I tried to scour these thoughts from my mind, but they simply wouldn’t leave.

At last I made it back to Buckquarter Creek. I quickly hopscotched across and felt a wave of relief at the prospect of being back on a section of trail that was reasonably well traversed by other hikers. To my left, however, there was a deserted cabin in the woods, which under the circumstances didn’t require a significant leap of imagination to be perceived as a potential hideout for a malevolent clown.

With the last stretch of trail in front of me, I saw motion ahead. Immediately my stomach was in my mouth. I’d been thinking of clowns for so long that the first thought to jump into my mind was of course the worst. I was tense and uneasy but continued. Finally I could make out the features of the approaching entity. I relaxed as soon as I did. It turned out to be just another hiker with his dog at his side and his baby on his back.

Finally I was done with the trail, and I got back into my car to head home. There’d been no encounter with clowns, no molestation from clowns, no sinister offers from clowns, no lurking or skulking of clowns. It’d been a good hike, even if I hadn’t arrived as promptly as I should have or with appropriate preparedness of electronic devices. In short, nothing bad had happened.

And this was when it dawned on me. The most harmful effect of recent media coverage of clowns in the woods has been the effect on people’s relationship with nature. Woods have been vilified once again as sites of malevolence, perversion, and violence. This vilification is nothing new, as anyone who’s familiar with the story of Little Red Riding Hood can attest. But the disparaging misrepresentation of clowns in the woods continues the trend and takes it to another level, adding an element of infantilizing terror to the experience and further dissuading anyone, especially children, from ever taking that first step into the embrace of nature. And that’s the real horror story.

Light and Shadow in the Summer Sun

by Mark Miles

Toward the end of June, I went to Occoneechee Mountain for the sixth time this year. I’ve been making it a habit to go at least once per month, and that schedule has allowed me to enjoy the fluctuations of the seasons without becoming inured to the place by visiting too frequently. As a result, the mountain remains fresh and exhilarating to me whenever I visit.

Cresting one of the first slopes along the main trail, I came within view of the early evening sun. It was dazzling after the gloomy atmosphere of the hill leading up to it, and I stood for a few moments to soak in the moment.

After branching off on the mountain loop trail, I descended again into the relative gloominess of the forest. It wasn’t in any way unpleasant, but I have to admit I was slightly unnerved on my first few visits when the canopy seemed to become much darker much quicker than the open terrain around the mountain.

On my way up the side of the mountain toward the overlook trail, I stumbled on this beauty. Appropriately enough, its common name is Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana), which I only found out after searching for a solid forty-five minutes on my phone through an online database. It’s a perennial with spiny stems, lanceolate leaves, four-petaled flowers, and drooping anthers. And it lives up to its name too, being one of the most beautiful flowers to be found on a western slope in the early evening, when the orange sunlight accentuates its innate magenta coloration.

To my surprise, despite arriving at the park later than I wanted, I had almost perfect timing for sunset, making it to the overlook itself within minutes of the last peek of the sun over the horizon. There were two other people there to savor the final rays of the day, and together we shared the moment on the edge of the mountain-face before going our separate ways.