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,

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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.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.