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, which is the presumable symptom of latent multiple sclerosis. 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. Like the fallen maple, my time will come to an end at some point, whether in the near future or many decades from now.

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In light of that, I have decided to open the door to possibility. From this point forward, I will be reducing my own input on my blog and making room for others, who share an interest in the preservation of nature and culture and who want to make a difference for the good of our planet. To that end, I will start accepting submissions of original stories addressing personal experiences of nature and culture in daily life. The submissions page (accessible at the top of the page or by clicking here) will be open to anyone and will be your best way to contact me in regards to submitting your own original story for publication on this blog. In the meantime make the most of the time you have left, for life is a gift, not a given.

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.

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.