Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Hunting for trolls at the Morton Arboretum

My last visit to the Morton Arboretum was a lifetime ago, but when I heard about the new art installation “Troll Hunt,” I knew we would be making the trek to Lisle during our sojourn in the Midwest. What more appropriate way to become reacquainted with the arboretum and hunt for trolls, than with best friends from my days in the UIUC forestry program? Of course a relaxing day strolling the paths of this Chicagoland institution wasn’t in the books – we hit the trails with three moms and eight kids, severely outnumbered but in for a fantastic adventure.

Meet Little Arturs!

The six trolls and one troll hideout is the work of Danish artist Thomas Dambo, and are crafted entirely from reclaimed wood and natural materials. The 15 to 30 foot tall sculptures serve as protectors of our environment: “The trolls share the Arboretum's desire to care for trees; however, they seem suspicious of humans. We need you to join the investigation and help trolls and humans come to understand each other. What will you discover when you join the hunt?”

Sneaky Socks Alexa had a 'human trap' set up, and was lying in wait to set it off...

“Troll Hunt” first opened in the spring of 2018, and will be on exhibit through 2018 and possibly into 2019. Bearing a resemblance to the trolls of European folklore, the enormous statues were a huge hit with the kids; we spent all day at the arboretum, split between troll hunting and the Children’s Garden.

Rocky Bardur is right off the parking lot - seems like someone parked a little too close!

Step one: Pick up the Troll Hunter's Handbook when you arrive. The trolls are located between two feet and ¾ of a mile from the nearest parking lot, spread over the Arboretum’s 1,700 acres; to see all the trolls, the total hiking distance is six to seven miles. A Morton map and the Handbook will help you find a logical route to visit the trolls, as well as provide prompts to find a clue for each troll; this will allow you to locate the Troll's ‘secret hideout,’ the seventh part of the installation. We opted to visit a few of the closer trolls by foot, and then drive to the remaining sites; see this link for info on accessibility and closest parking lots. You can also rent bicycles (or bring your own), as well as buy tickets to the troll tram; the 1½ hour tour takes you to 4 trolls with less than ½ mile walk at each.

The Troll Hideout

Step two: Try not to spend all day at the Troll Hideout! Once you’ve found all the trolls and filled in the blanks in the Troll Hunter’s Handbook, put your heads together to figure out where the hideout is located. It’s a short hike in but worth every step! There is a giant tepee structure for troll strategy sessions, and everything from a giant-sized mancala game board with pine cone pieces, to a troll-size toothbrush and other troll essentials! The kids took turns posing in the cauldron, banging the giant drum, cooping one another up in the human-size trap, and holding conferences in ‘troll court’. I spent my time admiring the imagination and craftsmanship behind every little detail of the hideout, photographing the shadows created by the tepee, and covering my ears whenever someone found the drum!

FYI: Morton Aroboretum has a Reciprocal Admissions Program with Hatcher Woodland Gardens in Spartanburg and the South Carolina Botanical Gardens, as well as the North Carolina Arboretum – please visit the website for more details. Or, visit on a Wednesday for $5 off an adult ticket.

Troll Hunt, a Fairy Tale

Monday, August 13, 2018

The purple martins of Lake Murray

A late summer trip to Lake Murray to watch the purple martin phenomenon has been on my South Carolina bucket list for more than five years, ever since one of my Fish & Wildlife Service friends told me about this amazing experience just 1½ hours from Greenville. This year the stars aligned when The Nature Conservancy announced the purple martin migration boat cruise on a night when we could make the trip.

Photo credit: Roberts

The cruise was aboard Catch the Spirit, a dinner yacht that is also available for public booking; see the Spirit of Lake Murray website. We pushed off from the dock located on an arm of the lake near Oswald Park, and soon were within sight of Dreher Island State Park and the main body of Lake Murray. Our destination: Bomb Island.

The 12-acre island is formally known as Doolittle Island, named for the commander of the 1st US air raid on the Japanese Home Islands during WWII. The raid was planned in Columbia, and B-25 pilots often practiced on the island, hence the nickname. Records indicate that at least five B-25s crashed into Lake Murray during this period; three were immediately salvaged, and at least one remained abandoned in 150 feet of water until September 2005 when it was once again brought to the surface.  (Today the aircraft can be viewed at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama.)

More recently Bomb Island is famous for a different form of aviation - the purple martins. Today Bomb Island (also labeled Lunch Island on some maps) is the largest purple martin sanctuary in North America, with hundreds of thousands of birds flying up to 160 miles every evening to roost there. From the first week of July through the end of August, the purple martins begin congregating over the island at dusk, putting on quite a show with their murmuration.

Purple martins are the largest type of swallow in North America, on average 7.5 inches long and weighing 1.9 ounces. The males are solid black, appearing a glossy purple in the sun. As we cruised through the waters of Lake Murray to a sun slowly slinking in the sky, we started seeing the birds swooping overhead, passing us on their way to the island. Two, then four, then ten at a time. Before we even saw the dozens of boats gathered around Bomb Island we could see the cloud of martins circling above.

The closer we approached, the thicker the sky was with martins. According to the TNC naturalist, the swooping and swirling is a social behavior, not a feeding or mating ritual. The masses appear to descend into the trees to roost, only to take up into the sky again and again for an encore, all the while hundreds more birds are flying in from around the lake.

In late summer after leaving the nesting colony, the purple martins gather in large flocks to socialize, rest, and feed on the insect populations in the area, building and storing fat that will fuel their trip to their wintering grounds in Brazil. The dry island with low thick brush provides a sanctuary from predators and a micro-climate warmer and less windy than land. An individual martin may use a roost for several weeks before moving on, but the migratory roost lasts for about 8 to 12 weeks or more until all the birds are gone.

Every morning the purple martins exit the roost all at once, just before sunrise. The air is so thick with the birds that they show up on the National Weather Service radar; to see it for yourself visit the NOAA radar website for the region between 6-7am, and check “loop” & “auto update.” On the one morning I was able to get online in time there was some cloud cover over Columbia, but the bulls-eye was still visible.

The Lowcountry and GA populations are better visible on this radar shot, source here

Although the Bomb Island roost is well established and has been used for many consecutive years, the number of birds can range widely. A wildlife research biologist at Clemson University studied the roost in 1995, making visual surveys to determine size of the roost, and then comparing it to radar images from NOAA. His estimate was that the total roost population numbered at least 700,000 birds, possibly the largest purple martin roost in the world. However in 2014 the martins didn’t show. Using doplar radar researchers found a roost on Lake Monticello, with a portion of the birds possibly moving southeast to join a roost on Lake Moultrie. They were back again a few years later... My best guess as to the number of birds this year – maybe somewhere around 200,000-300,000? Regardless, it was simply breathtaking.

Out west purple martins usually nest in abandoned woodpecker nest cavities, but here in the southeast the martins depend on humans to build them bird condos, made from wood or gourds. There are two practical reasons for attracting a martin colony to your homestead; first is that they are voracious insect eaters, and the second is to scare away certain less desirable birds. The birds prefer roosting in homes placed away from tall trees – another reason why they might return to Bomb Island year after year, as the bombing runs destroyed most of the trees years ago.

There are still a few weeks left to catch the purple martins before they leave on their epic journey to South America. Grab your binoculars, load up the boat, and head for Lake Murray; a cruise to Bomb Island to enjoy the aerial acrobatics show will become a summer tradition.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Major League Fun at TCMU

Parents of baseball fans, you’ve got one month left to experience the “Big League Fun” exhibit at The Children’s Museum of the Upstate GVL! The engaging baseball-focused exhibit explores the science and math behind the sport, while staying true to the sights and sounds we’ve grown up with.

Through role play, trivia and technology the exhibit immerses visitors in the world of major league baseball. My boys immediately head to the batting cage “Batter up!” where they don helmets, grab a bat, and step up to the plate. The screen shows the ball’s trajectory & how many bases a runner could cover with each hit, and keeps track of the swing count. Tip: the sensor in the ball tee can get touchy, so if the screen doesn’t say “swing away” go ahead and give it a jiggle!

We also had fun customizing baseball cards for all three kids – check out the Greenville Drive logo! Or, choose your favorite MLB team...

Parents, take a seat in the bleachers while the kiddos step into the announcer’s booth to give a play-by-play of a clip from a real game, then join them to listen to the broadcast they’ve recorded. Or, become a customer at the ticket booth and concessions stands; your little vendor will enjoy all the fun props.

Older kids will enjoy “Keeping Score” where they can answer trivia, calculate batting averages, and solve physics-themed problems. There’s also a camera and green screen that allow your baseball fan to interview coaches, players and fans, for live game coverage.

Other simulations involve pitching from the pitcher’s mound, throwing from the infield/outfield, and catching fly balls – all from the safety of this carefully curated exhibit. You’ll easily spend an hour exploring Big League Fun, leaving plenty of time to experience the rest of the museum on one of these last hot or rainy days before school starts up... perfect for the parents with kids too little for a Drive game!!!

PS The Greenville Drive have a week of home games coming up next week, from August 15th through 21st for those looking to get to a game. The season is almost over; the last four home games are scheduled Aug. 31 through September 3rd, so don your Drive gear and head to Fluor Field before another season is in the books…

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Aviation History in Tuskegee

On our travels this summer we’ve driven several stretches of Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Highway, and when researching the topic, I was interested to learn there are honorary Tuskegee Airmen sections of interstate all over the US. We’ve got a section of Interstate 95 in Colleton County right here in South Carolina, near the Tuskegee Airman Memorial in Walterboro. However it was on our return trip from the Florida panhandle that we were really able to delve into this aspect of aviation history, with a stop at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.
Tuskegee Airmen NHS Hangar #1

In the early 1900s, aviation was closed to African Americans, military aviation completely inaccessible. When Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act in 1939, they intended to generate large numbers of pilots who could quickly transfer into military aviation if needed. When programs were established in colleges around the country, they included six black colleges, thanks in part to the efforts of the National Airmen’s Association of America. One of those programs was at the Tuskegee Institute, 30 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama.

In May of 1940, the first class of CPT pilots completed their elementary flight training at Kennedy Field. After legislature such as the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 were passed, pressure from civil rights organizations and the press eventually led to the establishment of the segregated 99th Pursuit Squadron in January 1941. Tuskegee Institute’s Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Air Field were the only training facilities for African Americans throughout the war, and the achievements of the Squadron's pilots came despite continuing racism and segregation, in Tuskegee as well as at overseas bases.

There is a Park Service Jr. Ranger Program at the Historic Site to help children understand the exhibits

By the end of the war almost 1,000 pilots had been trained. Even more impressive is the number of African Americans trained for service in the US Army Air Corps… 17,000 men and women were schooled as mechanics, communications & electrical system specialists, armament specialists, medical technicians, cooks, clerks, parachute riggers, air traffic controllers, flight instructors, bombardiers and navigators. All are known today as Tuskegee Airmen.

Taking in the view from the control tower

Start your visit to Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Hangar #1 with a site orientation video and a look at two restored vintage airplanes and various exhibits. Continue on to Hangar #2 to see a wide assortment of artifacts and exhibits, including a replica P-51 Mustang. The initial Hangar #2 was destroyed by fire in 1989, but at the rear of the reconstructed hangar is the original Control Tower. Climb up to view where clearance to take off and land was given before stopping at the Bookstore for additional literature or a souvenir. Other structures onsite include the Cadet House, Army Supply Building, Auxiliary Storage Shed, Bath and Locker House, and the Skyway Club, the rec facility servicing all military ranks and civilians at the time.

The George Washington Carver Museum and Tuskegee Institute Information Center

While in Tuskegee, make sure to budget time to also explore Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. It was here, in a repressive post-Reconstruction Alabama, that a celebrated university and symbol of African American achievement was born. Many of the buildings constructed while Booker T. Washington was president still stand, providing an architectural aspect to the history lesson. Both sites are free to the public; see websites for hours. Bottom line; the Tuskegee Airmen NHS provides valuable insight into our nation's history - military, civil rights, women's rights, aviation - as well as echoing the recurring theme of the last century: persistence and triumph in the face of racism and discrimination.

Tompkins Hall at Tuskegee Institute

Monday, August 6, 2018

Exploring Lake Jocassee

There is no doubt that the best way to explore the 75 miles of Lake Jocassee’s shoreline is by water. The 7,500 acre lake is at the heart of the Jocassee Gorges, regarded by National Geographic as one of “50 of the World’s Last Great Places,” and the uniqueness of the area in terms of geography, plant diversity and natural beauty is second to none. The majority of land around Lake Jocassee is protected from development, a large portion being part of the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges. Meanwhile public road access is mostly restricted to Devils Fork State Park at the very south end of the lake. Public boat ramps at the Park were our means of access on a recent visit; for more on Devils Fork State Park and its trails and amenities please visit my post, Devils Fork.

Lake Jocassee is tremendously deep, up to 350’ in places. At the southeast corner of the lake you’ll find the Jocassee Hydro Station holding back all this water, standing 385 feet high and 1,750 feet long, and separating Jocassee from what eventually becomes Lake Keowee. The shoreline north of the dam is popular with boaters due to the tall cliffs rising out of the water. You’ll often see multiple pontoons anchored and swimmers enjoying the aqua waters, and the white sand beach (depending on the water level) will even have folks with barbecues and tents on sunny weekends.

Created by the state of SC in partnership with Duke Power in 1973, Jocassee is famous for its clear and cool waters, fed by rivers descending from the Appalachians. The easternmost is Horsepasture River, which flows into the northeast corner of Lake Jocassee along with Toxaway River, together forming the right ‘arm’ of the lake. Access to the wilderness to the east is complicated. Horsepasture Road winds 16 unpaved miles through the Jocassee Gorges from Rocky Bottom and the Eastatoe Gorge all the way to Lake Keowee, with a handful of smaller two-tracks (not always open to vehicle traffic) and a network of trails providing some access. However, the terrain is breathtakingly rugged, and while there are spectacular views of Lake Jocassee along Horsepasture Road (see my post on Jumping Off Rock), the only way to get down to the lake is via an arduous hike, such as on the Foothills Trail.

Laurel Fork Falls, from cove and from grotto

The large, steep valleys that surround Lake Jocassee are responsible for a large number of waterfalls, many of which are visible from the water. The crown jewel is Laurel Fork Falls, an 80 foot waterfall that is on the same river that flows over Virginia Hawkins Falls (see my post on the Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve). Although the view from the Laurel Creek cove is extraordinary, you'll have to turn the corner into the grotto behind the rocky tower to see the waterfall plunge into the lake (see photo above). Nearby you’ll find an access trail to the Foothills Trail along with multiple other waterfalls including Devils Hole Creek Falls and Mills Creek Falls. Additional popular destinations on the east arm of Jocassee include the many small islands jutting out of the turquoise waters, and a rock formation our friends call ‘jump off point’ due to the convenient access to a ledge for jumping into the lake. *PLEASE exercise extreme caution when jumping into any lake, checking depth and searching for obstructions (underwater as well as above water) as well as considering safe footing.* Navigating to the mouths of Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers will take you into North Carolina, so make sure you’ve got your passport with if you’re headed that far…

Cliffs near the Jocassee Hydro Station

Flowing into Lake Jocassee in the northwest corner of the lake are Whitewater River and Thompson River, together forming a left ‘arm’ to Lake Jocassee. Land access to this corner of the lake is via trails from the Bad Creek Trail Access Point; the Bad Creek Hydroelectric Station on Whitewater River is a 1,065 megawatt pumped-storage facility that started generating electricity in 1991 and is owned by Duke Power. The Bad Creek site provides a trailhead for the Foothills Trail, a trail through the Coon Branch Natural Area, and a ½ mile spur trail to the Whitewater River. While there is a platform overlooking Lower Whitewater Falls off the Foothills Trail, a small waterfall on Whitewater River can be seen from Lake Jocassee (Lower Lower Whitewater Falls?) just beyond the hydro station. Further east are Wright Creek Falls and Thompson Falls, as well as multiple unnamed waterfalls that are more/less easily found depending on water flow. A map of the larger waterfalls can be found online here (please note that what is labeled ‘Unnamed Falls’ is actually located at the mouth of Bad Creek).

Waterfalls on Lake Jocassee clockwise from top left: Wright Creek Falls, Thompson River Falls (from top), Devils Hole Creek Falls and Mills Creek Falls

As you follow what used to be Whitewater River back south to the main reservoir and the Devils Fork State Park boat ramps, at some point you’ll pass over the remains of Atakulla Lodge. The structure was left standing when the valley was dammed, and preserved by the cold waters of Jocassee, the Lodge still stands under 300’ of water. Experienced divers can visit the site, as well as the Mount Carmel Baptist Church Cemetery (a setting for a scene in the film Deliverance, 1972) which is about 130 feet underwater on the lake’s south end.

Guided waterfalls tours are available, fresh water fishing charters depart from the boat ramp at the park, and boats ranging from kayaks to pontoons can be rented from various vendors in the area. Fishermen will be excited to learn that Lake Jocassee holds state records for 5 species of fish: redeye bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, brown trout and rainbow trout. Visitors can either stay at one of the park's villas, in the campground, or at one of the many nearby private vacation rentals. Regardless, plan a return trip to Devils Fork in the spring to view the rare Oconee Bell wildflower, and hit Bear Cove trail in the autumn for the fall foliage. However you choose to explore the Jocassee Gorges, an exploration of Lake Jocassee by boat should be on your South Carolina bucket list; nothing compares to a day spent soaking in the resplendent beauty of its pristine shores, turquoise waters and cascading waterfalls with a backdrop of breathtaking blue mountains.

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