Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Riga from above - Latvian Academy of Sciences

A while back I started a series entitled “Rīga from Above” on various towers, rooftops and viewing decks that give visitors a bird’s-eye perspective of Rīga. One option that I neglected to include is the Latvian Aademy of Sciences. While it is close enough to Vecrīga to showcase the tile roofs and church spires of the 800-year-old city, it has a unique location that allows for a view of Daugava and the opposite shore including the National Library, and the city to the south.

The 21-story building is believed to be the first high-rise in Latvia, construction stretching from 1951-1961. Architects were Osvalds Tilmanis, Vaidelotis Apsītis & Kārlis Plūksne. Fun fact; there was a small church located at the site until 1812, and the building was constructed on the cemetery.

If you plan to visit, know that there is a fee (reduced for students & seniors), and that the elevator will only take you to the 15th floor… To get to the observation deck on the 17th you’ll have to climb a few flights of stairs.

Other articles in the "Rīga from Above" series include:

Tuesday, May 16, 2023


Ej, Laimiņa, tu pa priekšu,
Es tavās pēdiņās,
Lai kājiņu neiespēru
Asariņu peļķītē.


Monday, May 16, 2022

Thirteen years

Heavy rains for the first time in weeks, followed by a full flower moon, complete with lunar eclipse! Seems right on target with a thirteenth wedding anniversary!?

May the adventures continue...

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Femme au Foyer Guide to the Foothills Trail

Waterfalls, wilderness areas, wildflowers and epic views… No, I'm not talking about a national park somewhere out west, but our very own Foothills Trail! Backpacker magazine rated it as “one of the best long trails (fifty plus miles) in the country,” and it traverses the Jocassee Gorges, which National Geographic named one of "50 of the World's Last Great Places—Destinations of a Lifetime"… this isn’t just any walk in the park! Well-suited for a through-hike for families looking for a challenge, yet accessible even for the shortest day-trip ramble, the Foothills Trail is rapidly gaining notoriety as one of the premiere trails in the southeast.

Map via Foothills Trail Conservancy

Totaling 77 miles, the trail stretches from Oconee to Table Rock State Park with additional spur trails to numerous waterfalls and Caesars Head State Park. Major trailheads are located at the state parks, as well as US 178, SC 130 and SC 107. You’ll find all this and more on the trail’s website, and the following interactive map has access points, campsites, water sources and other info:

With 77 miles of trail, it can be daunting to choose the right hike for your family. I’ve put together a guide to help identify shorter hikes on/near the Foothills Trail and spurs that will take you to points of interest, as well as give you the info you’ll need to plan your trip: parking, hike difficulty, cost, etc. The trail is broken down into sections, the numbers corresponding to the system the Foothills Trail Conservancy uses on their website: “A” denoting access points and “S” spur trails.

A short history of the Foothills Trail

The push to protect the Appalachian Foothills began in the 1960s, with Clemson University and the US Forest Service (USFS) leading the way. The first component connecting Oconee to Table Rock was built in Sumter National Forest by the USFS, and by the early 1970s, the Foothills Trail effort was gaining momentum. Duke Power offered to build and maintain the central section of the Foothills Trail during the process of planning the Bad Creek Hydroelectric project, and in 1974 the Foothills Trail Conference was established.

The 77-mile trail linking Oconee and Table Rock State Parks was finished in 1981, and for the last 40 years the Conservancy has promoted and supported the trail through trail maintenance and developing the Foothills Trail Guidebook and map. To become a member, please visit the FTC’s website! Join Now – Foothills Trail Conservancy

The Trail

Table Rock State Park (A1)

Chances are, you’ve been on the Foothills Trail already, as a portion of this section shares trail with beloved Carrick Creek Trail in Table Rock. The one mile of trail that follows Carrick Creek up from the Nature Center has a waterfall, countless cascades, and a gentle grade with well-maintained trail - perfect for young children. From there you can keep hiking, although the trail gets much steeper. A short spur goes up to the summit of Pinnacle Mountain, though all the views are found along the Foothills Trail: Bald Knob (3.6 miles from Table Rock) and Drawbar Cliffs (4.6 miles from Table Rock). Both make great destinations, though be warned they are difficult hikes; less experienced hikers will want to stick to Carrick Creek!

The easy way out(side): Carrick Creek loop trail 

Know before you go: State Park pass required, hikers must register at kiosk at Nature Center.

On the top of Sassafras Mountain

Sassafras Mountain (A2)

Another spot on the Foothills Trail you may have already checked out is Sassafras Mountain. Remember, as it’s the highest point in the state, any direction you hike will be descending from the summit… which means you’ll have to go back up to get to your car!

The easy way out(side): The observation tower and the rock outcrops located adjacent to the medium-sized parking area guarantee that you will not have to go far to soak in those views! Remember to bring a picnic to enjoy at one of the picnic tables.

Know before you go: Parking is free, but the road up can be closed in the winter for inclement weather; to check on the status, call the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office at (864) 898-5500.

Beech Bottom Falls

Chimneytop Gap (A3)

Just two miles from the summit, the section of trail from Chimneytop to the top of Sassafras makes for a nice day hike. Start at the Chimneytop parking area to get the hard part out of the way first; the views at the peak will be so much more spectacular as for having earned them with the climb up!

The easy way out(side): Park at Chimneytop and hike the Beech Bottom Falls trail

Know before you go: Up until Sassafras the Foothills Trail has just been passing back and forth into the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges, but after Chimneytop it heads right into the heart of the wilderness area. Be prepared for fewer road access points and limited cell service!

Raven Cliff Falls from Naturaland Trust Trail spur

Caesar's Head Trail: Sassafras (S1) to Caesars Head (S2) spur

The 14.2 miles from Sassafras Mountain to Caesars Head are strenuous, but the trail borders Greenville watershed property, some of the most pristine forest in South Carolina. A highlight of this section is Raven Cliff Falls, the tallest waterfall in the state. To reach a viewing platform across the valley from the falls, hike in from the Caesars Head SP end (use the Raven Cliff Falls parking area) – the 4-mile in-and-out hike is moderate in difficulty.

The easy way out(side): Park at the Caesars Head Visitor Center and walk out to the overlook to get a birds-eye view of the terrain!

Know before you go: State Park pass required, hikers must register at kiosk. Parking lot fills up fast, plan to get an early start and have a back-up plan if overflow lot is full.

Jumping Off Rock

Laurel Valley (A4)

The medium-sized parking area on Horsepasture Road serves as a gateway to the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges, and marks the last vehicle access point to the Foothills Trail for many miles. A popular dayhike destination from this trailhead is Virginia Hawkins Falls, an 8.5 round trip, although by driving a bit further on Horespasture Road you can reach a second trailhead that cuts down the mileage to 2.6 miles in-and-out.

The easy way out(side): Take a slow, scenic drive on Horsepasture Road, with a stop at Jumping Off Rock to take in one of the most epic views of the Jocassee Gorges.

Know before you go: Horsepasture Rd. is a primitive road maintained by the SC DNR. It’s open year-round, but allow for extra travel time – the 9 miles to Jumping Off Rock can take around an hour.

The Narrows

Eastatoe Gorge: Laurel Valley (S3) to the Narrows (S4)

A moderate hike of 5.4 miles round trip (with a steep, if short section that might tend towards strenuous), a Foothills Trail spur takes hikers into the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve. This section is characterized by amazing spring wildflowers and a view of Eastatoe Creek as it funnels through a narrow rock channel called “the Narrows.”

Know before you go: Park at the Laurel Valley parking area, not at the gate a little further up the road where the trail enters the forest – the road there serves as emergency access, and blocking the gate can get you heavy fines and possibly towed.

Bad Creek Access (A7)

The Bad Creek Hydroelectric Site is a 360 acre "pump-back" storage facility that pumps water from Lake Jocassee and stores it until needed for peak energy demands. It has a scenic viewpoint over Lake Jocassee as well as a public parking area providing access to the Foothills Trail, the Jocassee Gorges Wildlife Management Area, and Lower Whitewater Falls.

The easy way out(side): It is 0.7 miles one-way from the parking area to the Foothills Trail and Whitewater River, a nice destination for those looking for a short hike with some time by the water. The viewing platform for Lower Whitewater Falls is a little more of a challenge, 4 miles in-and-out.

Know before you go: There are three boat access points to the Foothills Trail in the 33 miles from Laurel Valley to Bad Creek Access (Laurel Fork A5, Canebrake A6 and Horsepasture River) and a 5-mile connector trail (Cane Brake Trail from Frozen Creek), though no vehicle access save for a few intersections with 4WD forest roads. This is a popular section for camping, especially with families and novice hikers looking to get a feel for backpacking. The Foothills Trail Hiking group on Facebook can be very helpful for planning purposes, with advice from experienced hikers/campers as well as up-to-date trail conditions. It is very important to be well-prepared if entering this section, as there is little-to-no cell service, and you are crossing through the heart of the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges in addition to Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve, NC Gorges State Park and the NC Gamelands. 

Upper Whitewater Falls

Upper Whitewater Falls (A8)

The NC Hwy 281 Upper Whitewater Overlook parking area proves access to spectacular views of Upper Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Rockies!

The easy way out(side): A paved, accessible, ¼ mile trail leads to the upper observation area, then 154 steps further you’ll have reached the lower observation area. You can continue on to descend to the river – just remember, you’ll have to climb back up!

Know before you go:  A parking fee of $3 per vehicle goes toward continued improvements of the park. Please don’t venture off-trail, as deaths and serious injuries have occurred here!

View from Wigington Overlook

Sloan Bridge (A9)

The 5.5-mile hike from Whitewater to Sloan Bridge is along a ridge, and has superb views of Jocassee in the winter, but the majority of visitors are drawn to Sloan Bridge for a picnic at one of the tables, to cool down in the East Fork of the Chattooga River, or for a short hike to one of the several waterfalls to the south.

The easy way out(side): After a picnic at Sloan Bridge, drive over to the nearby Wigington Overlook for a picture-perfect view of Lake Jocassee.

Know before you go: There are no trash receptacles at Sloan Bridge Picnic Area; remember, if you pack it in, please pack it out!

Fish Hatchery Road (A10)

It’s just 3.3 miles to Sloan Bridge from Fish Hatchery Road, and with multiple trails in the area, many hikers plan a loop to make a day out of their visit to this corner of the state.

The easy way out(side): Just a little bit further up the road is the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery: take a self guided tour, go fishing, have a picnic, and enjoy the natural beauty of the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area!

Know before you go: A visit to the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery is free, but if you want to feed the fish, bring quarters for the fish food dispensers.

King Creek Falls

Burrell’s Ford (A11)

There is so much to do in this remote corner of the state! In addition to numerous major waterfalls, Burrell’s Ford offers camping, fishing and picnicking along the Chattooga Wild & Scenic River. For more on Burrell’s Ford, see my post King Creek Falls and Burrells Ford.

The easy way out(side): Enjoy a hike to King Creek Falls or Spoonauger Falls

Know before you go: Burrell’s Ford is free, but can be popular on weekends. Get there early for parking and first choice of a campsite!

Chattooga River, as seen from the Foothills Trail

The Highway 107 access points

Headed south on Highway 107 from Sloan Bridge you’ll pass several access points to the Foothills Trail. However, being small dirt lots that only have room for a handful of cars, we’ve grouped them together for this guide.

Nicholson Ford Access: This access point to the Foothills Trail is also the trailhead for hikes to Licklog and Pigpen Falls. The gravel road can sometimes get a little washed out, if you would rather stay on pavement park at Cheohee Road.

Cheohee Road (A12): Just off Highway 107, Cheohee Road is also known as Winding Stairs Rd. A gravel forest road leads to several popular waterfalls and a Forest Service campground.

Jumping Branch Trailhead (A13): The last access point before entering Oconee State Park!

Oconee State Park (A14)

The southern terminus to the Foothills Trail, Oconee also serves as a connector to Oconee Station via the Palmetto Trail

The easy way out(side): Enjoy Oconee State Park! From multiple hiking trails leading to historic sites, views and waterfalls, to putt putt golf, boat rentals and a beach – Oconee has got it all!!

Know before you go: State Park pass required, hikers must register at kiosk at Nature Center

The rest of it! 

Hikers who complete all 77 miles of The Foothills Trail—from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park – are eligible for the Peregrine Award, which was started in 2011 in honor of longtime FTC member Heyward Douglass. The word peregrine comes from the Spanish word peregrino, which means pilgrim. It is also the name of one of Heyward’s favorite birds; he was instrumental in the re-introduction of the Peregrine Falcon to the mountains of Upstate South Carolina. For more information, please visit the Foothills Trail website

Hopefully this guide helps you identify which sections of the Foothills Trail are closest to your home, and will assist in figuring out how you can best get your family out on the trail this summer! Please remember to hike within your comfort and skill level, and always plan ahead – research the trail, local regulations, weather, hazards, and what to do in an emergency. Happy hiking!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Latvian guides celebrate 100!

The Latvian guides were established on March 15, 1922, on the heels of the founding of Baden-Powell’s scouts (1910) in England and the Latvian scout organization (1917). When Latvia was illegally occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Latvian guides were forced to disband. However, the thousands of refugees fleeing death and labor camps during WWII brought the movement with them, and for the next 50 years the flame would be nurtured by Latvians first in displaced persons camps in Europe, later in Australia, Canada and the United States. When Latvia regained its independence in 1991, I was probably among the last to know; our guide troop was camping in the pine forests of Wisconsin where incidentally, the cub scouts had staged a campfire skit a few days earlier portraying Latvian soldiers defeating Soviet invaders. Over the last thirty years the torch has been gradually passed back to the LSGCO, the scout organization that was reestablished in Latvia in 1991, and the movement remains strong. Today the Latvian scouts are relentlessly working and organizing to help the thousands of refugees arriving daily from Ukraine, history repeating itself as Ukranian Plast scouts flee the same evil aggression as the Latvian scouts did 70 years ago

In the midst of the disheartening news coming from Europe every day, there is still the need to celebrate the good, and so a few days ago, Latvian guides (present and past) and their supporters virtually gathered to celebrate the centennial. We said a prayer, sang along with our sister scouts, and after a brief presentation of the history of the Latvian guide movement were asked what gaidisms – being a guide – means to us.

My immediate answers were along the lines of outdoor skills and friendships, but as I looked through albums and dug through old photographs later that evening, I could admit that the Latvian guides laid the foundations for much of what was to come in my life. From the love of nature that was nurtured by endless camping trips and excursions year-round, to my career of forestry and firefighting inspired by the love of outdoor adventure (all those backpacking and canoe trips, survival courses and ecology lessons), to our family’s explorations of the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills today. My Latvian heritage might have rooted before I gave my guntiņu solījums, but the friendships accumulated over years of jamborees helped nurture my sense of belonging, and today three of my sons are members of the Latvian scouts alongside BSA in hopes they might find a similar sense of place in the diaspora. My marriage might even be the result of scouting; Roberts recounts meeting me at a weekend scout camp, and although I don’t remember the particular moment he loves to narrate when asked how we met (I must have been 11 or 12 that February), looking back at group pictures from a dozen jamborees, camps and other events from a period of about 10 years, I can pick out both of our faces, smiling, unaware that we would be camping together for the next twenty years.

Gaidas are a family affair as well. More than one photo shows me standing with my grandmother, mother, aunts, siblings and cousins during a jamboree: when I received the dzimtenes lielgaida award, during the riverside ceremony where I received my leader’s neckerchief, and at the 10th jamboree in 2010 – which was especially memorable as four generations were represented (I carried 3-month-old Lauris in a carrier the entire week).

The opportunities offered through guides have been incredible also. I've camped with my sister guides from a canoe in northern Ontario, in the mountains of New York, even in the forests of Latvia. We learned to build and sleep in a snow structure, survived a day on an uninhabited island with only what we had in our pockets, decorated Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry Festival of Lights Latvian Christmas tree, performed elaborate theater productions such as Latviešu kovbojs (with the accompaniment of band "The Minnow Buckets," and learned to find the beauty in things, no matter how little we had slept or how badly we had burned dinner on the campfire. And yes, we even learned how not to burn dinner - along with the first aid, the woodsman skills, the navigational abilities, leadership, self-reliance... the list goes on. It will be a rare time outdoors when I do not utilize some aspect of my career as a guide, or reflect on a memory of one of the many wonderful experiences I've had over the years.

Our centennial celebration was also bittersweet. The Latvian guides I belong to, of guides outside of Latvia, have voted to disband as the organization has accomplished what it set out to do; to continue fostering young Latvian women through the principles of scouting, until the scouts and guides in Latvia were free to resume their work. While I completely understand the logic, the reasoning, it has still been heart-wrenching to watch this chapter of the Latvian guides come to a close. There is a sense of loss for all the Latvian girls growing up outside of Latvia who will never sing Kluss miers pār zemi, arms linked with dozens of friends under a starry night sky.

While the Latvian guide configuration may not look the same going forward, it is my hope that gaidas the world over will continue to fulfill the mission to engage the youth of tomorrow, instilling the values of scouting/guides while working towards the good of community and a better tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me in wishing the Latvian guides a happy 100th birthday – arvien modra!

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