Summer Botanical Hiking at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

I’ve been quiet on my blog for the past four months. You may have realized this, or it may have escaped your attention. In either case, there is good reason. Since February, I’ve been dealing with a case of severe and prolonged polyneuropathy. As a result, I’ve been far more fatigued and depleted than usual and have had to reduce my activity on this blog in order to focus on regaining my health.

In the interim, I’ve still been hiking and exploring trails in the area. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my favorite trails is at Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where there’s an abundance of botanical life that continues to surprise me. On a recent hike, over the last weekend of August, I was able to take photos of some of the best botanical specimens in addition to my usual trail photography, which I will share in this post along with an identification and brief description of each botanical specimen.

I arrived at the Occoneechee Mountain parking lot in the late afternoon on Sunday, August 26th. The weather was absolutely perfect, hovering in the low seventies with minimal humidity and almost no cloud cover. It was so nice, it was hard to believe it was still summer. The sunlight was golden, bathing everything in a shade of welcoming radiance and promising many photographic opportunities. There were only a few vehicles in the parking lot—which meant I didn’t have to wrestle anyone for a spot—so I promptly parked and embarked on the Mountain Loop Trail.

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After hiking the first few hills, I came to a red oak that had a noticeable coating of shelf fungus on the north side. The fungus turned out to be mossy maze polypore (Cerrena unicolor), and the wood of the oak underneath the fungus was brittle and decomposing, indicating that the tree was in poor health and probably wouldn’t live much longer. I stopped and took a look at the fungus, noticing the delineation of colors, which alternated between white and green in clearly identifiable bands. A fungus with this alternation of color is called zonate, and this distinction can be helpful in identifying many species, as it did in this case.

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Upon passing the first of many rock formations on the Mountain Loop Trail, I noticed a juvenile loblolly pine tree (Pinus taeda) on the side of the trail and stopped to take a look. There was a mature female pine cone on the underside of one of the branches. Since female pine cones—which are the hard, woody cones that most of us associate with pine trees—often take a year and a half or more to mature, it was clear to see that this loblolly pine, however juvenile, was not to be dissuaded from reproduction by youth.

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Hiking further down the trail, I came to one of the most photogenic locations at Occoneechee Mountain. At this point in the trail, there’s a fairly steep hill, at the crest of which is a clump of pine, maple, and oak trees, all of which overlap one another and filter the rays of the late afternoon sun. In late fall and midwinter, when the sun is closer to the southern horizon, the rays of sunlight overlap the trail almost exactly, creating a compelling photographic effect when properly timed. As you can see in this photo, however, it’s still a little early in the season.

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After descending the photogenic hill, I followed the Mountain Loop Trail on its course, veering sharply toward the east at the edge of the park. At this point, the trail enters the floodplain of the Eno River, which is still to the north of the trail. Before you see the river, however, you can feel it, as the temperature drops noticeably due to the proximity to water. Another indicator of proximity to water is the increasing prevalence of sycamore and beech trees, which are scattered along the banks of the river and the edges of the trail.

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Hiking along the banks of the Eno River, I came to another striking botanical specimen, a yellow wildflower with eight thin petals—each petal is actually a ray floret, an entire flower unto itself—waving in the wind at the top of a four-foot-tall plant. This thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus) is native to the region and predominates in woodland and riparian zones where birds, bees, and butterflies benefit from the added food source.

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Following the trail, I climbed a flight of stairs embedded in the side of a hill and came to this escarpment of rock. Along the edge of it, there are numerous maple and beech trees which have taken residence. The escarpment itself is part of an old abandoned rock quarry, which now provides one of the most distinctive sights in all of Occoneechee Mountain. Walking underneath it is something of an exercise in faith and hope, and it’s easy to see how precarious the lives of the adjoining trees must be as a result.

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As if in confirmation of that fact, I came to a fallen maple tree, bisecting the Mountain Loop Trail, before I reached the old quarry. There was apparently a fungal infection at the base of the maple’s trunk which eroded its structural integrity over time and left it prone to collapse. With the torrential thunderstorms and heavy winds we’ve had in North Carolina lately—which are becoming increasingly frequent as our planetary climate continues to unravel at the seams—the maple tree wasn’t able to withstand the stress and came crashing to the forest floor.

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After passing the fallen maple and the old quarry—where I wasn’t able to get decent photos due to the insufficiency of my phone and the sharply contrasting light—I diverged from the Mountain Loop Trail and joined the Brown Elfin Knob Trail. (There are some names you simply can’t make up.) Shortly after joining the new trail, I noticed a small white mushroom to my right and stopped to take a look. What I found was an ivory funnel mushroom (Cerrena dealbata), one of the more poisonous fungi at Occoneechee Mountain, which produces a nerve toxin that causes salivation, palpitations, and asphyxiation if ingested in sufficient quantities. Fortunately I wasn’t hungry.

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There wasn’t much of the trail left after this last botanical encounter, and I returned to the parking lot in short order. With the crisp air and fading light to guide me, it was easy to feel nostalgic. In light of my own health issues over the past four months, I was keenly aware that there will only be a finite number of times in my life when I will be able to see the beauty of late summer at Occoneechee Mountain.

References:

Cerrena Unicolor,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Clitocybe dealbata,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Fungi growing on trunk/branches,” University of Minnesota Extension, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Helianthus decapetalus,” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, accessed August 29th, 2018.

How to Identify Oak Leaves,” Wikihow, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Mushrooms & Fungi,” Northland Paradise, accessed 27th, 2018.

Pinus taeda,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Pippen, Jeffrey S., “North Carolina Wildflowers, Shrubs, and Trees,” Jeff’s Nature Home Page, accessed August 29th, 2018.

Ten-petal Sunflower,” Illinois Wildflowers, accessed August 29th, 2018.

What Tree Is That?: Tree Identification Field Guide,” Arbor Day, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Exploring History on a Spring Hike to McCown’s Mill

by Mark Miles

History pervades everything. If you’ve ever gone on a hike in the woods and unexpectedly discovered the remains of a crumbling barn, the shards of a glass bottle, or the fading traces of an abandoned path, you’ve seen this for yourself. So often, however, this fact is overlooked by our culture in its persistent race toward novelty, which is frequently presented as an unqualified good but should more accurately be considered a drug to distract us from what is truly important in life. Regardless of whether it functions as a sedative or stimulant, novelty is frequently nothing more than a relic of the past redecorated for modern consumption.

The irony of this situation is that confronting the complexity of the past in all its historical depth can provide a greater sense of novelty than any prefabricated commodity on the market. By going into the world, seeing for ourselves the impact of the past on the present, and extrapolating from the present to the future, we can begin to appreciate where we as a species have been and where we are rapidly heading. We can also begin to appreciate how much our own lives are deeply and inextricably interwoven with the lives of people whose last footstep came to rest on this planet centuries ago.

Not for the first time, I found myself in this position on the first weekend of May, when I took a hike on an unfamiliar stretch of trail at Eno River State Park. I’ve hiked portions of the Laurel Bluffs Trail in the past (click here to view story), but the trail is so long and hilly that I’ve only ever been able to traverse a small portion of it at a time. In this instance, I started from the Pump Station Access on Rivermont Road in Durham and made my way northwest to the southern bank of the Eno River, where I then followed Laurel Bluffs Trail on its southwest trajectory toward the ruins of McCown’s Mill.

Laurel Bluffs Trail is one of the less frequented and consequently less well maintained trails in Eno River State Park. As such it can be somewhat treacherous in parts, especially when the trail suddenly veers up a steep incline or skirts the edge of an actual bluff. Nonetheless it’s also deeply peaceful by virtue of its seclusion and at times hypnotically beautiful in its serpentine dance along the banks of the Eno River. On this occasion in early May, as I navigated through the woods on Laurel Bluffs Trail, I was keenly aware of this.

I was also aware of the presence of the ruins of an old mill – which was originally called McCown’s Mill and later called Cole’s Mill – on this stretch of the Laurel Bluffs Trail. In fact there’s a nearby road in Durham named Cole Mill Road, which to this day passes within a quarter mile of McCown’s Mill and was presumably named for its close proximity to the mill after it underwent a change of ownership in 1874. Though most people have no idea of the origin of the name of the road, it’s one small but pervasive way in which history has left its mark on the land.

The mark would never have been made, however, without the work of many people who lived in this area and ensured the construction of McCown’s Mill over two centuries ago. Foremost among these people was John Cabe, the owner of another mill a couple miles upstream, whose family was one of the most powerful and influential in Durham during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Fulfilling his responsibilities as patriarch, John Cabe oversaw the construction of McCown’s Mill in 1813 as a kind of dowry for his daughter Rachel Cabe upon her marriage to Moses McCown.

The reason for this was simple. John Cabe had nine daughters and no sons, and during this period in US history women were prohibited from owning or inheriting land in their own name. If they were in a position to own or inherit land, it transferred to their husbands by default. This situation did not change in North Carolina until 1868, when married women were finally allowed to own property in their own name in the event that their husbands were irresponsible, imprisoned, or incapacitated. Therefore, if John Cabe wanted to continue to exercise power and influence over the region, he had to find some way to ingratiate himself to the man who would become Rachel Cabe’s husband and the legal owner of his lands. This John Cabe did by financing the construction of a mill and naming it after his son-in-law, Moses McCown.

This marked the beginning of McCown’s Mill, one of the more substantial mills in the region as indicated by the presence of a tilt hammer. A tilt hammer is a very large and powerful blunt instrument used primarily in smithing to refine ore and temper steel; this made it very handy in the time before steel mills were common in the United States. Below is a short video demonstrating a tilt hammer (also called a trip hammer) in action.

It represented a significant input of capital on the part of the mill owner and allowed the mill to perform a much wider range of operations than it would otherwise have been able to. In a sense, it was John Cabe’s way of making sure that Moses McCown fully appreciated how much he owed the older man.

But the marriage between Moses McCown and Rachel Cabe was not to last. In 1830, Moses McCown died, leaving Rachel the implicit but unrecognized owner of McCown’s Mill. To ensure that her children would inherit the mill uncontested, Rachel married another mill owner named Herbert Sims in 1831. Rachel’s family subsequently held the mill until 1874, when Rachel’s children sold the mill to John Anderson Cole. It was at this time that McCown’s Mill became Cole’s Mill. In 1908, however, the mill was destroyed in a devastating flood, after which time McCown’s Mill became little more than a footnote in history.

Aware of the presence of the old mill, I was keen to find as many traces of it as I could on my hike. After crossing under the overpass for Cole Mill Road, which is still functional to this day, I passed through the surrounding forest of beech and sycamore, noticed the leveling out of the trail on the flood plain, and finally caught sight of something ahead. There was a footbridge over a small creek, and I hurried to cross it.

After the footbridge, I noticed a side trail branching to the left away from Laurel Bluffs Trail. Peering into the distance, I caught sight of something that appeared to be an old stone hut. Intrigued by the thought of what it might be, I approached through the thicket of undergrowth, which wasn’t as well cleared now that I was off the main trail. When I came within ten feet of it, I stopped in my tracks and admired the handiwork which graced the old springhouse. This was the location where meat, dairy, and perishables would have been kept cool in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before the advent of icehouses or refrigeration.

Returning to Laurel Bluffs Trail, I resumed my search for the ruins of the old mill. Before long, I noticed a cylindrical depression in the ground to my left, about twelve feet wide by five feet deep with sloping edges. Then something, actually two somethings, caught my eye. They were sitting on the southest side of the depression, opposite where I was standing. They were about four feet in diameter and were draped in undergrowth. They were undoubtedly millstones.

The first millstone I saw was the runner stone, which sits on top and rotates in a traditional gristmill. In this position it provides the necessary force to create friction to grind the grains which are fed into it from above. The circular hole in the middle facilitates the motion of the stone spindle, an axle which attaches to the runner stone and causes it to rotate.

The second millstone I saw was the bed stone, which sits on the bottom of a traditional gristmill. In this position it remains stationary while providing the counterforce necessary to create friction to grind the grains which fall between it and the runner stone. If you look closely, you can see the fissures where separate stones were plastered together to form the bed stone.

Continuing down Laurel Bluffs Trail, I came to a hill where another side trail branched to my left. Taking this trail, I ascended the hill by the side of a creek bed and came to an old abandoned cabin, surrounded by foliage and adjacent to a field. There was no clear indication of what purpose this cabin served, but it may have been associated with one of the ancillary businesses frequently attached to a mill: forge, general store, cotton gin, or distillery.

Turning west, I continued to explore the hillside. Before long I came to a clearing, after which I was able to discern the unmistakable traces of an old road stretching into the distance. To the south of this road, there was a primitive stone wall that stood about two feet high, though it may have been much taller when the mill was still operational. Positioned on the edge of the road that passed by the mill, the wall may have formed an enclosure for a loading dock where materials from McCown’s Mill were transferred onto awaiting vehicles for transport to distant markets.

Backtracking to the cabin and descending the hill, I started hiking Laurel Bluffs Trail back to the Pump Station and my car. The trail was mostly deserted, but the views were pleasant and gave a distinct impression of what must have attracted so many early European settlers to this area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Certainly the beauty of the area must have been one of many reasons why John Cabe and his daughter Rachel chose to make a home for themselves on the banks of the Eno.

For my part, the beauty of the Eno Valley has been a great benefit to me over the past two years since I started hiking regularly. But there’s so much more than mere beauty to be found here and in any other wilderness. There’s a haven of peace and tranquility, a hotspot for health and fitness, and a great place for outdoor recreation. Beyond that, there’s a vital connection to the past in the form of historic sites such as McCown’s Mill, without which future generations will have no way to fully appreciate the importance of a crucial chapter in local history.

There are other additional reasons for the preservation of historic sites. For a start, they prompt us to reconsider what is truly important in life: freedom, nature, beauty, peace, health, and belonging. They beg the question of why our culture is so obsessed with and addicted to novelty for its own sake. They allow people to develop a real relationship with the land, without which our lives would not be possible. They reveal that history and the land are one, so deeply intertwined that it takes only the smallest scratching at the surface to uncover a wealth of knowledge about both. Finally they show that if our species is to survive on this planet, we must protect both history and the land. Without them not only will we starve, but we will even forget who we are.

References:

Anderson, Jean, “A Community of Men and Mills,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 7 Special Issue, July 1978, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Anderson, Jean, “Cabe, John,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (via NCpedia), (University of North Carolina Press, 1976), accessed May 3rd, 2018.

Anderson, Jean and Margaret Nygard, “The Story of West Point on the Eno,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 3:1, 1975, accessed May 2nd, 2018.

Bender, Nancy, “Spring Houses, Important Buildings in the Past,” Mercersburg Historical Society, accessed May 1st, 2018.

Cabe, John Family Cemetery,” Durham-Orange Genealogical Society (via Cemetery Census), accessed May 3rd, 2018.

February – McCown-Cole Mill,” Eno River Association, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Heron, Duncan, “Mill Sites on the Eno River; A Geological Viewpoint,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 7 Special Issue, July 1978, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Khan, B. Zorina, The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920 (New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp. 166-8.

Kueber, Gary, “McCown-Cole-Sparger-Nygard House,” Open Durham, accessed May 2nd, 2018.

Nygard, Margaret, “the Coles,” January 1986 Calendar, Eno River Association, accessed May 10th 2018.

Spring Houses,” Good Things by David, accessed May 1st, 2018,

Trip Hammer,” Wikipedia, accessed April 30th, 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.