Friday, September 30, 2016

Hawk Watch at Caesars Head

You’ll find members of the Greenville County Bird Club “Wing Nuts” at the Caesars Head State Park overlook this time of year, volunteers participating in the count of migrating hawks. The Hawk Watch starts in early September and runs through November, during which time the hawks are on their way to Central and South America on their migration route. The geography of the Blue Ridge Escarpment provides ideal air currents and thermals for the migrating birds of prey, and the 3,266 ft Caesars Head overlook affords a dramatic view of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area and the thousands of migrating raptors.

We had planned a day to meet some friends up on Caesars Head for a morning of birdwatching, with hopes of learning some of the general characteristics that distinguish hawks from eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. For weeks the Upstate had seen clear, blue skies with no rain, so it was to some dismay that we awoke to a forecast of thunderstorms. Upon our arrival a thick fog rolled in, and although the kids were thrilled to be up in the clouds, visibility dropped to less than 50 feet. In hopes that the fog would soon burn off, we started at the picnic tables with this printout from Clemson University that shows the silhouettes and coloring of some of the birds most often seen during Hawk Watch. Armed with more extensive bird identification books (such as my go-to Peterson’s Field Guide), we colored in our booklets and discussed wing formations before heading on a short hike down to the viewing platform that looks at Caesars Head in profile.

The fog was still steadily blowing in and only Caesar’s nose was visible, and so we didn't spend much time there and instead climbed up through the Devil’s Kitchen to the overlook. Members of the Wing Nuts were in already in place despite the foggy conditions, and as we waited for a break in the weather we queried them on this year’s Watch.

According to our newfound (and very patient!) friend Mr. Brady, the previous week’s tally included a Peregrine Falcon and a dozen Bald Eagles. On a good day in September, hundreds even thousands of raptors might be seen passing through, but it was obvious that we would not be seeing much of anything on our visit. We learned that it is not unusual to see 200 to 300 hawks at one time soaring or circling in a thermal overhead which is known as “kettling” or a “kettle ” of hawks. We also discovered that the highest single day count to date was over 5,200 birds. Suddenly there was a break in the crowds, and two large birds soared directly overhead and into the fog.

It was just a brief glance, but the guess was Turkey Vultures, a more common (but no less exciting to watch!) sight for us here in the Upstate. We saw almost a dozen of these large birds during the 2 hours we were watching, as well as two of the local Ravens. The majority of the fall count consists of Broad-winged Hawks (in 2001 more than 10,000 were seen from the overlook during fall migration), but other species documented include Ospreys, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Merlins, American Kestrels, Mississippi Kites and Black Vultures. The fog did lift near the end of our vigil, and just as we were leaving Mr. Brady was studying a bird in the distance with his binoculars – a Bald Eagle. (Note, the day’s tally includes 14 Broad-winged Hawks that passed by later in the day, just before the thunderstorms…)

On our way back down the winding road that descends the edge of the Escarpment we stopped at Bald Rock Heritage Preserve for a different perspective on the Upstate. The first leaves are turning in the Foothills, and I’m looking forward to returning every couple of weeks to see the progression into winter; our Hawk Watch experience and the foggy morning on Caesars Head was a great kick-off to my favorite season in South Carolina.

For more information on Hawk Watch, visit the Greenville County Bird Club website.
For the current year’s tally and archive results since 2007 visit the HawkCount website.
For the Clemson Caesars Head Hawk Watch brochure click here.
...and here are my previous posts on Caesars Head and Bald Rock.

Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A World of Energy

Learning to cast a fly

At the very northern reaches of the Upstate, Lake Jocassee is fed by four cold mountain rivers: Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture and Toxaway. Located in the southeast corner of the lake is the Jocassee Hydro Station, which separates it from the beginning of Lake Keowee, also known as the Keowee River.

One of the permanent exhibits features topographical maps of the area

The man–made reservoir is approximately 26 miles long and 3 miles wide, averaging about 54 feet deep with 300 miles of shoreline. The project began in 1971 with the construction of the Keowee and Little River Dams, and today cools Duke Energy’s three nuclear reactors at the Oconee Nuclear Generating Station. Below the dams the water joins to form the Seneca River and Lake Hartwell, eventually emptying into the Savannah River.

The name Keowee is a Cherokee name meaning "place of the mulberries." What formerly had been the Keowee River was part of the Cherokee Lower Towns region, and Keowee Town had been located on its banks before it was inundated by Lake Keowee. Today it is a popular destination for recreation, with boating, swimming, sailing, kayaking and other watersports bringing in crowds on summer days. Boat launches and access points dot the shores, including in the public parks. There’s Estate Park, managed by the SCDNR, and then 1,000 acre Keowee-Toxaway State Park, which is managed by Duke Energy together with the state and consists of three different parks: Mile Creek Park, South Cove Park and High Falls Park.  Some of the islands on the lake are accessible for daytime use, and the area is popular with fisherman for its three types of bass, crappie, bluegill, yellow perch, catfish, brown trout and rainbow trout.

The towers as seen from the auxilliary parking lot

Oconee Nuclear Station has a capacity of 2,538 megawatts, and according to the Duke Power website was the first nuclear station in the US to generate 500 million megawatt-hours of electricity. The output can power 1.9 million homes, and Oconee was just the second nuclear station in the US to have its licenses renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after the initial licensing of 40 years. Although security at the station is strict, visitors can head to Duke Energy’s World of Energy for educational activities and interactive exhibits interested in learning more about electricity generation, Duke Energy and Lake Keowee. World of Energy regularly hosts family-friendly events such as National Hunting and Fishing Day which took place this past Saturday. We attended together with Lauris’s scout troop, exploring the indoor and outdoor facilities on a hot September day.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, the free event featured booths, games and displays by a dozen partners including Clemson, 4-H, the DNR, USFS, Upstate Forever, Cabela’s and Trout Unlimited. Kids had the opportunity to climb a rock wall, shoot with a bow or air rifle, try their hand at fly casting or lake fishing, go out in a kayak on Lake Keowee, put out a ‘fire’ with a Forest Service wildland fire engine’s hose, or don a camouflage suit and play hide & seek in the leaf litter. There was a hunter education trail set up, although really all the activities stressed safety, conservation and responsible recreation. We met a few native SC critters, explored the Butterfly Garden, took a siesta in the hammocks and had a snack overlooking Lake Keowee.

rock climbing, fire hoses, archery, fishing and 'find the baby'!

The next event at World of Energy is in preparation for the 2017 Great American Eclipse. The October 25th ‘Super Tuesday’ program features a lecture by Dr. Donald Liebenberg, adjunct professor of physics at the Clemson University Department of Physics and Astronomy. For more information on this and other programs at the World of Energy, please visit the Duke Energy website.

The butterfly garden was alive with pollinators

Monday, September 26, 2016

Minnehaha Falls

A jam-packed weekend: the natural water slide at Long Shoals Wayside Park, a hike to Bull Sluice on the Chattooga River, Anna Ruby Falls, and the highest points in two states, Sassafras Mountain and Brasstown Bald. We were taking the scenic route home from Lake Chatuge; from Unicoi State Park we headed west towards Lake Burton and Clayton, with one final stop in mind.

It was getting to be late in the afternoon when we arrived at the parking area for Minnehaha Falls, basically a wide spot in Bear Gap Rd. Only a couple of other cars were parked at the trailhead, Labor Day weekend being in full swing. We had come in past Seed Lake, and now we were parked overlooking Lake Rabun; both were filled with water skiers and boats, the air fragrant with barbecues. My guess is that had we arrived earlier, we might have seen bigger crowds at what is a popular local waterfall.

Minnehaha is named for the Dakota word for ‘waterfall’. The falls trail is managed by the Forest Service, a green diamond and #147 marking the spot off Bear Gap Road. This Georgia waterfall should not be confused with Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota, which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made famous in “The Song of Hiawatha.” However, this is the waterfall featured in the photograph behind the desk in the Lodge at Amicalola Falls in the movie “ A Walk in the Woods” (starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte).

We made quick work of the short trail; there and back is less than ½ mile. It starts with a wooden staircase labeled “Minnehaha” and climbs southwest along Falls Creek through a forest of rhododendron. After passing several smaller waterfalls we reached Minnehaha, a 60-foot cascade. Being the tail-end of summer, the water flow wasn’t as impressive as in some of the photographs I had seen, but the beauty of the water flowing over the sharp, geometric ridges was breathtaking, and I could have spent hours on the banks and splashing in the creek.

The boys quickly donned swimsuits and waded in. A word of warning; the rocks are slick in parts, and as always, extreme care should be exercised on, in and around all waterfalls. However the boys had a great time searching for treasure in the shallow waters beneath the falls, and with such a short hike out we stayed longer than we had intended.

This waterfall is one of my favorites in eastern Georgia, and I would love to get back in the spring when the rhododendron are in full bloom and the water is really flowing. It could possibly be combined with a trip to Tallulah Gorge, and it’s really not that far from the Chattooga and the point we had crossed into the state on Highway 76. With these thoughts in mind we headed out towards Clayton, racing daylight to make it out of the mountains and back home to Greenville.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Anna Ruby Falls

It might have been a mistake… We were stuck in traffic outside the Georgia mountain town of Helen with three impatient boys in the backseat, only to finally make it to the Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area to find the park was at capacity – one car in for every one out. It was Labor Day weekend, and we had just come from Brasstown Bald, otherwise we would have arrived much earlier than the afternoon hour.

Once we finally made it to the ticket booth and paid our $3/person (15 and under free), it was relative smooth sailing… only the littlest of the boys had fallen asleep. We found a parking spot, packed a backpack, and set out for the trailhead, Vilis still asleep in my arms.

Although you must pass through Unicoi State Park to reach it, the site is operated by the USDA Forest Service, part of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest (in the Chattooga River Ranger District). The Visitor Center has full facilities, and the 0.1-mile Lion's Eye Trail that is designed for people in wheelchairs and those with visual disabilities guides visitors right down to the bank of Smith Creek on one side. To the other is the trailhead for Anna Ruby Falls Trail, the 0.4 mile trail paved foot trail that takes you up along Smith Creek to two observation decks near the base of the falls.

Legend has it that a local Confederate soldier, Colonel John H. Nichols, found the waterfall while horseback rising in the area, and named them after his only daughter, Anna Ruby. The majestic Falls are formed by two separate creeks flowing over exposed granite, and then together to form Smith Creek: Curtis Creek falls 153 feet, York Creek falls 50. Together they continue south, forming the lake in Unicoi State Park and then emptying into the Chattahoochee in the town of Helen. The two observation platforms at the end of the trail give two different vantage points, but it was a weekend of crowds, and my boys (including Vilis who woke up once I sat down at the top of the trail) weren’t impressed. The snacks I had packed received more attention than the scenery, and so it happened that we were soon on our way down, searching for a quieter spot to enjoy the summer afternoon.

At the opposite end of the parking lot is the picnic area, located right along Smith Creek. We spread our shoes and socks out next to a picnic table and waded on in, spending the next hour searching for interesting rocks and water striders in the cool mountain stream. Compared to the crowds we had passed on the way to the falls, we only saw two other people in the picnic area; we had the river to ourselves. It was tempting to spend the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the giant poplars, but we still had one more stop to make on our way back to Greenville…

Final verdict; if you're out on a busy weekend, you're better off choosing another spot to visit as the crowds will diminish the power of the falls. If we hadn't experienced Brasstown Bald that morning I would have been terribly disappointed; is all of Georgia covered in kudzu? Luckily the afternoon was redeemed by the next spot we visited, another waterfall. Oh, one additional piece of information; the Smith Creek Foot Trail links the Anna Ruby Falls trail to Unicoi State Park. For those looking for a more challenging route to the waterfall, the 4.6-mile trail starts at the campground in Unicoi and emerges near the upper bridge across Smith Creek right next to the first observation deck. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Narrows

We went on an awesome hike. (Which means this is a long post, but I had a lot I wanted to say, and a bunch of pictures!)

Now, this one isn’t for everyone. It was listed as 5 miles round-trip (and some websites had it listed as only 3.4!), but I suspect it was closer to 6 with the extra bit from the parking area and the side-excursion down to the creek. Also, it was steep. Our boys are troopers, and all three turned into a whining mess of “carry me” before we even got to the turn-around point, not even talking about the return trip. We couldn’t stop for too long in most places, as the mosquitoes liked the moist gorge habitat, and the official trail only leads to a lookout – we had to take unofficial (and crazy steep) side trails to get down to the creek.

But, this hike was magical. Even Roberts said “this is one of my all-time favorites.” Coming from him (unprompted) it’s like winning the hike-planning lottery. And, I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard of the place before - it's an off-the-radar place.

Every year around this time Horsepasture Rd. starts seeing an increase in traffic of folks looking to get out to Jumping Off Rock to take in the views of Lake Jocassee as the leaves are turning. If you’ve ever been out that way, you’ll remember the last 8 miles to get there are on a gravel, barely-wide-enough-to-pass, winding mountain road. But you’ll also have passed right by the trailhead to the place I’m talking about… The Narrows*.

The info kiosk in the Horsepasture Rd. parking lot

From Rocky Bottom, SC you head north on Highway 178 until you cross the bridge, and then make a left on Horsepasture Rd. taking the right fork (going uphill, not along the river). In about ¼ mile you’ll see the parking area for the Foothills Trail on your left; this is where you park. You’re now officially in the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges, often just called Jocassee Gorges. From here you’ll proceed (on foot) another ¼ mile up Horespasture Rd. past an access point to a spur for the Foothills Trail (Oconee SP only 61.7 miles away!), to the red gate on your left.

Once we had navigated around the gate we followed the road marked with yellow blazes (and signs) to the border of the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve. The 373-acre tract encompasses a portion of the Eastatoe drainage along Narrow Ridge including “The Narrows,” our destination.

The first ½ mile after the red gate is an uphill climb, followed by about a mile of gently down-sloping trail. During this time the trail is following the old roadbed, and it’s easy hiking through a beautiful forest of wild hydrangea, towering oaks, hickories and tulip poplars, rhododendron and mountain laurel in the understory. There is a steep drop-off on the creek-side of the trail, and in spots we could catch a glimpse of Horse Mountain. The forest was alive: turkeys calling, acorns dropping, and the distant sound of water rushing through the Narrows. The smell of wild grape was intoxicating, and I wondered if it was a bumper crop, or if there is such abundance every year. We saw persimmons, berries and acorns, wow, there were so many acorns!  Considering it was the tail end of summer, I was also surprised at the number of flowers blooming; lobelia and oxeye sunflowers joined the very first signs of autumn for vivid splashes of color that included bright red black tupelo leaves and the pink and orange seeds of the strawberry bush plant.

the seeds of the strawberry bush plant

Every dozen feet the boys found something else to inspect: brightly colored beetles, perfectly cubical pieces of quartz, a toad, a daddy longlegs, “the biggest acorn ever!”…  We let them take their time, because we knew that the stretch of trail coming up would prove a challenge. About 1 ½ miles from the red gate the trail makes a hard left down into the gorge, and here the going gets steep. The drop down is made easier by well-constructed trail, switchbacks to ease the descent, and stairs & bridges where needed. However, it was still hard for the kids; Vilis was in the carrier (protesting the entire time) and Mikus and Vilis holding our hands for a good portion of the descent.

It got noticeably more humid, and although I’m unsure if the South Carolina portion of the Jocassee Gorges is technically part of the Appalachian temperate rainforest, it sure felt it! The forest here was magical, old growth hemlock and giant ferns, and it was immediately clear how the Jocassee Gorges had made National Geographic’s list “50 of the World’s Last Great Places.”

Down in the gorge we came to a fork in the trail. To the left are campsites (currently closed) and Eastatoe creek access, popular with fisherman due to the naturally-occurring rainbow trout, while to the right is the overlook of the creek emerging from the “Narrows.” In the span of this section, the stream will have dropped some 600 feet in elevation through a narrow channel very aptly named, generating the mist which helps maintain high humidity along the Eastatoe and enables three species of rare ferns to thrive in the Preserve.

view from the overlook

We took a breather at the overlook. It’s a fantastic sight, all that water gushing through a channel that can’t be more than 3-4 feet wide! There’s evidence of people going around the overlook to try to descend for a closer view, but don’t be fooled! It’s a cliff on two sides, and there’s no access to the water at this point!

We retraced our steps toward the fork and took an unofficial trail (to the left) down a draw instead. The stream descends swiftly even after emerging from the Narrows, but thanks to the low water level we found a safe spot for the boys to explore while we took in the view. I made my way upstream, crossing the creek and carefully making my way on the opposite bank for a closer look at what is simply an awesome geological formation. The channel of the Narrows is incredibly deep, and even the wide pool at the base of the chute is rather deep with a wicked current. And this is at the end of summer, several months without a good rain!

I could go on and on… How I saw trout swimming against the current at the base of a small waterfall while the boys walked on water above, how every now and again a shower of leaves would rain down upon us, the shadows bouncing off the canyon walls, how the cool air was swept along with the water and made me dizzy with wanting to breathe it all in… However both Roberts and I realized the implications of being down in the gorge – we would have to make our way back up.

Having repacked all the backpacks to lighten the boys’ load we started back up. I won’t write about this part other to say it was hard. We distracted, we bribed, and we took frequent breaks to eat candy. And we climbed out of the Eastatoe gorge and emerged at the trailhead tired and sore, but with one heck of a hike under our belts.

Jack-in-the-pulpit berries

I can’t remember a single time when I was this unsure about writing a blog post about one of our adventures. It’s selfish – unreasonably, I feel that if I share the location with my readers, there will be no room for us next time we go. It’s out of fear – this is such a biologically and geologically unique(and sensitive!) area, I don’t know of any other place in the Upstate that is similar and I hate the thought of seeing the damage that has been wrought on many other popular spots take place there. And it’s out of anger – I watch videos like the one out of Oregon and wonder how many vandals it would take until every last one of the beautiful places in our area are destroyed.


But in the end, I decided I have to write about it. My goal with posts about our favorite hikes and waterfalls is to share them with others. I want everyone to get off their couch and get out into the fresh air, to feel the magic we found, and to realize that it isn’t just Alaska, Arizona or Hawaii with the incredible natural places – we’ve got them right here in the Upstate.

Oxeye sunflowers

So having said that, I hope you make the hike, and I hope you enjoy it! To break it down, it’s an hour drive from Greenville and we spent 5+ hours hiking and resting at the creek. The sign at the Foothills Trail connecter says 2.7 miles to Eastatoe Gorge, so that’s 5.4 total +the additional 0.3 or from this point to parking lot and back, and 0.2 to descend to the creek. It is NOT 1.7 miles as stated on several hiking websites, a fact easily checked through a look at google maps. Beware of poison ivy, mosquitoes, and chiggers, the aftermath of which still itches as I write this post. Finally, be prepared for one of the most intriguing hikes you’ll ever go on in the Upstate… See you on the trail!

* This hike is featured in the book South Carolina Nature Viewing Guide: Your guide to more than ninety of the best and most easily accessible nature viewing sites in South Carolina by Patricia L. Jerman. 

en route to the Narrows we passed this field of sun

Monday, September 19, 2016

The high point of our trip: Brasstown Bald, GA

Another state peak conquered!

Georgia’s highest point is Brasstown Bald, coming in 25th (out of the US 50) at 4,784ft. The 360˚ views from the top of the observation tower include four states: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The name is derived from the Cherokee work Itse'yi (New Green Place), which was often spelled Echia, Echoee or Etchowee, and in this case was confused with the word for brass, Úñtsayĭ’.

Visitors to the mountain must park in the designated parking area, and then either hike up the 0.6 mile paved trail or take the shuttle service to the summit. We opted to take the shuttle up, as we still had a couple of hikes ahead of us that day; the Brasstown Bald Summit Trail connecting the parking area to the Visitor Center & viewing platform is very steep. We did descend via the trail, and although it is a scenic climb, it is a high-traffic area. I didn’t regret taking the shuttle with our three boys, especially after seeing the expressions on the faces of the parents pushing strollers and corralling kids that we passed on the way down on what was a humid summer morning.

Within the parking area complex you’ll find the ticket booth ($5/person ages 16+), restrooms, a ‘country store’ selling souvenirs & ice cream, the shuttle staging area, and picnic tables/grills scattered on the fringes of the parking lot. We arrived rather early in the morning and there was no wait for a shuttle; we simply climbed in and were immediately taken up, all the while treated to a running commentary of the history, flora and fauna of the area. Kudos to our tour guide for continuing on despite the endless crying he received in return; Vilis wasn’t happy with his backpack being on, and didn’t want to take it off.

At the summit you’ll climb the stairs to the lower deck and Visitor Center. As the sun hadn’t burned off the morning fog yet, we first headed to the visitor center, the boys requesting scavenger hunt forms and immediately disappearing into the maze of exhibits. Not only was the scavenger hunt age appropriate (and they have a Jr. Ranger option for older kids), but it was educational and fun, and I highly recommend participating as the boys all earned a treat for their efforts. The word search and maze gave them something to do in the car on our drive back east, an added bonus!

We then climbed the stairs to the upper deck, and spent the next hour admiring the extensive views. I feel we really lucked out in terms of visibility, as we could easily distinguish the Great Smoky Mountains all the way over in Tennessee. Downtown Atlanta wasn’t visible, but I really don’t believe that it ever could be with all the smog they put up…

The boys each had binoculars in their backpacks which allowed us to skip feeding quarters into the stationary ones, and we had luckily brought an extra layer – it was much cooler on the summit until the sun came out. It was also nice getting there early, as I feel we beat some of the crowds. The only other tip I have is to pack a lunch and utilize the picnic areas. The scenery is fantastic, there’s parking nearby, and grills, tables & bear-proof garbage bins are provided.

Should I consider joining the Highpointers club, with our recent summit of Sassafras Mountain in SC and 2013’s foggy climb to the top of North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell? It looks like we’ve got a long way to go (literally!) to continue crossing off peaks, because I couldn’t find a single other peak I could already strike from the list (not even Charles Mound in Illinois, at 1,235ft!) and I don’t see us climbing Denali anytime soon. On the other hand, this might be the motivation I need now that Vilis is a little older… 

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