Thursday, August 20, 2020

Bombs Away: the atomic bomb impact crater in Mars Bluff, SC

Fun (little known) fact: the US has dropped a nuclear bomb on the Carolinas.... twice.

About three hours east of Greenville lies the small town of Mars Bluff. Originally known as Marr's Bluff during the American Revolution, the name was shortened to Mars Bluff at some point before the Civil War, near the end of which the inland Confederate Mars Bluff Naval Yard was established.

I had never heard of the naval yard, but the town’s name is familiar; Mars Bluff has the distinction of having been inadvertently bombed with an atomic bomb by the United States Air Force. This might otherwise not have been on my radar, but my boys are budding US history buffs and so it was a given that we would eventually visit the site.

On a spring day in 1958, a B-47 Stratojet was en route to the U.K. to take part in “Operation Snow Flurry.” A fault light lit up, indicating the bomb’s harness locking pin had not engaged, and Captain Bruce Kulka went to investigate. As he reached around the bomb to pull himself up he accidentally hit the emergency release pin; the 8,500-lb. device hit the bomb bay doors, broke through them, and went screaming towards earth.

Aerial photo of the Gregg home after the bomb (Photo credit: Columbia Star)

Luckily for Walter Gregg and his family, the bomb wasn’t armed with its nuclear rod; its fission core was stored in a separate part of the plane. Unluckily for Walter Gregg, it was loaded with about 7,600 pounds of explosives; the resulting explosion destroyed his house, flattened his garden & surrounding forest, and created a mushroom cloud that could be seen for miles. By some miracle, not a single person was killed in the blast. The military reimbursed Gregg giving him a chance to start over, and the property was passed through the hands of several owners over the next fifty years. The hole was never filled in.

The original bomb crater was 30 feet deep and measured 75 feet across, although today not much remains to indicate that this was the site of a local footnote in Cold War history. A historical road marker on the north side of Interstate 76 marks the entrance to an overgrown road that leads to a hard-to-follow trail. Wind your way through a pine thicket past the foundation of the Gregg house, and you’ll come to what is now just a leafy depression in the woods, most easily recognized by the large plywood cutout of a bomb and kiosk with newspaper stories that were prepared for a 50th anniversary event. At one point the crater was used as a burn pit, giving the rainwater a murky appearance.

Crater Road

Because the property remains in private hands, visitors need the owner’s permission to visit the site. There is a second, much easier access point off Lucius Circle – also on private property. To round out the trip, make sure to stop by the Florence County Museum after stops at the crater and historical marker; it houses several fragments of the bomb. 

After the Mars Bluff incident all flights were required to ensure that bombs were locked down properly before takeoff. That still wasn’t enough to prevent a second Carolina event, as on January 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up mid air, dropping two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Information declassified in 2013 showed that one of the bombs came very close to detonating; it had its trigger mechanisms engage and its parachute open, two things that only happen when the bomb is intended to explode on target. Only one low-voltage trigger kept the bomb from detonating upon landing. In July 2012, the State of North Carolina erected a historical road marker in the town of Eureka, 3 miles north of the crash site, commemorating the crash under the title "Nuclear Mishap" – maybe a future destination for our crew?

"Commander Admits Crew Error Possible" and "It Was a Bad Day in Mars Bluff"

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

TRACK Trails - A Kids in Parks Program

“Get Unplugged. Get Outdoors. Get Cool Prizes.

This is the Kids in Parks motto, on the free TRACK Trail program designed to get kids to have fun outdoors. With TRACK Trails in twelve states as well as an e-Adventure and Backyard Adventure option, Kids in Parks is an expanding network of family-friendly outdoor adventures that has been another way our family gets outdoors to explore new places.

Each TRACK Trail features self-guided brochures that turn your visit into a fun outdoors experience as you learn about the things you see all around you. Most trails have multiple brochures available, so that your kids can choose a topic that interests them and is appropriate for their age level. Common topics include insects, geology, animals and plants, and it is common for my boys to each choose a different brochure and end up sharing what they have discovered with each other.

The Glassy Mountain TRACK Trail at Carl Sandburg Home NHS

South Carolina currently has three adventures, one in Congaree National Park, one on the Peak to Prosperity Passage of the Palmetto Trail, and one in Vereen Memorial Gardens. However, there are numerous adventures in North Carolina that are easily reached on a daytrip, including several in places that you’ve likely already visited: Gorges State Park, Pisgah National Forest, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, Chimney Rock State Park and the NC Arboretum.

Signing up is easy; you just create an account, and then start logging your hikes. Register here: If you would rather not create an account, you can still participate; the brochures at the trailheads are free, and you’re sure to still have fun even if you don’t log your hikes online. First, find a TRACK Trail near you, and then let the adventures begin!

A luna moth caterpillar near Bolin Creek, Carrboro, NC

In return for registering hikes, kids receive cool gear. With their very first hike they’ll get a nature journal in the mail, where they’ll be able to put their trail stickers (each trail has its own sticker) and write down cool things that they saw or did. Additional hikes earn prizes like bandannas and hand lenses, with a total of eight prizes for those who have hiked eighteen TRACK trails.

The program isn’t just about hiking… In addition to the hiking trails there are also biking trails, geocaching trails, paddling trails, nature trail disc golf courses, and even adventures you can do in your own back yard. The Nature Trail disc golf courses have their own prizes, such as a course dogtag for each course played, and the Bike TRACK Trail gear includes a bike light and bell.

The NC Arboretum TRACK Trail near Asheville NC

The miles add up quickly! You’ll be able to track your adventures in online nature journal; see how many trails you’ve visited, how many miles you’ve hiked, and earn virtual medals for accomplishing extra goals within the program: TRACK Trail Traveler (visiting more than one TRACK Trail), State TRACKer (visiting TRACK Trails in multiple states), and Outdoor Adventurer (more than 1 type of TRACK Trail).

You can read more about some of the TRACK Trails in our region by following these links:
Peak to Prosperity, Alston SC
Chimney Rock State Park, Chimney Rock NC
NC Arboretum, Asheville NC
Crowders Mountain, Kings Mountain NC
Oconaluftee River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Blackrock Summit Trail in Shenandoah NP
Carrboro, NC (Charles Herman Wilson Park)
Lake Benson, Garner NC

Crowders Mountain TRACK Trail

To sign up for the Kids in Parks program, click here.
For a map of all the TRACK Trails, click here.
To learn more about the prizes the kids will receive in return for logging hikes, click here.
And to see examples of the brochures you’ll find on the TRACK Trails, click here.

On the Blackrock Summit TRACK Trail in Shenandoah National Park

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Congaree National Park with the SC 7 Wonders Expedition

As we made our way to the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, sweat was already dripping down the small of my back; the heat index was somewhere close to 100˚ and it was only 9am. I had Zintis in the carrier and a backpack loaded down with extra water, and each of the other three boys had on their own packs with water bottles. We had woken early in order to make the 2-hour drive to South Carolina’s only National Park, and now were making our way to the Visitor Center to meet up with South Carolina 7 Wonders Expedition. I was already wondering if this wasn’t a mistake on my part; the older boys could hold their own on most hikes, but would we be able to keep up with the team on what was turning out to be one hot day? Not to mention the logistics were to be a little different – Zintis was not yet 2 months old and this would be my first solo hike with all four boys...

Introductions were made as the hikers gathered at the Visitor Center. We were joining a team that had for most part already been hiking together for half the month, and heading up the Expedition that would eventually traverse the entire state was Tom Mullikin. Tom has dived all of the world’s five oceans and summited more than 20 mountains across the globe. The former U.S. Army JAG officer has served as a “National Geographic Expert,” and is a Fellow in the Manhattan-based Explorer’s Club & London’s Royal Geographical Society. Currently Tom serves as chair of the Governor’s S.C. Floodwater Commission, and is leading the effort to build a flood-mitigating ocean-reef off the SC coast, all the while heading up his non-profit, Global Eco Adventures. A few words on the day’s hike, and soon we were entering the shade of the floodplain forest’s canopy.

Photo credit: Megan Roe

The SC7 expedition is named for the 7 Wonders of South Carolina. Along with treasures such as the Wild & Scenic Chattooga River, the highest point in the state and the Jocassee Gorges (one of Nat Geo’s “Last Great Places”), Congaree National Park takes its well-deserved place on the list as the 4th Wonder of South Carolina. Over the course of 30 days, the SC7 team is traversing the state to visit each of the 7 Wonders, utilizing the Palmetto Trail as the guiding pathway from the Carolina mountains to the coast. For the entire month of July, Tom and SC7 are hiking, rafting, horseback riding, and scuba diving along more than 300 miles of the Palmetto Trail, stopping along the way to engage the public in conversation on topics such as adult & childhood fitness, conservation, renewable energy, plastic waste, and flood mitigation. You can read the entire itinerary on the SC7 website and listen to snippets of interviews and the fireside chats on their Facebook page; how many of South Carolina’s seven wonders have you visited?

Source: SC7 website
As it turned out, I should not have worried about our keeping up. The SC7 team set a fast pace, but there were plenty of stops along the way – the first of which was not more than a hundred steps into our hike when we met a resident rat snake. Our guide was Chief of Resource Stewardship and Science Ranger David Shelley, who proved to be a fountain of information on every topic: flora and fauna, history of the Park, and the effects of a changing climate on the region. Tackling this topic and raising awareness was one of the main goals of the expedition, and what better place to do it than the largest remaining area of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in North America?

Ranger Shelley among the cypress knees

Ranger Shelley led the way south on Sims Trail, where we learned about cypress trees and their knees, and caught a glimpse of a barred owl roosting just a hundred feet off the trail after it startled us with a loud hoot. Zintis had fallen asleep shortly after meeting the rat snake, and now happily dozed as we kept on. I chatted with Michelle McCollum of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor about the miles the team had already logged, plans for the second half of July, and future plans for SC7. While the pandemic might have disrupted the 2020 expedition, the hope is that next summer the team’s goal of getting Carolinians out and active in the state’s most beautiful places can be realized.

Upon reaching Wise Lake we took a breather, the Ranger telling us more about the Congaree’s unique ecosystem as we gazed out over the still waters of the oxbow lake, a former bend in Cedar Creek. It was in another of these lakes that we spotted an enormous alligator gar on a previous visit – who knows what else lurks in these dark waters! (Well, Ranger Shelley probably knows, but I still won’t be taking a swim anytime soon!)

Just beyond the lake we got our first up-close look at a giant cypress tree, not quite a champion but in the same class. The Congaree boasts the tallest known specimens of 15 species of trees, including a 167-foot loblolly pine that is just 18 feet shy of the Boogerman white pine in Great Smoky Mountains NP, the tallest known tree in the East! The Congaree has the nickname “Redwoods of the East,” altogether home to six national and 23 state champion trees.

Photo credit: Megan Roe

By now sweat was streaming down my face, but luckily the boys were in excellent spirits despite the temperature having climbed to 93˚. We fell into step with Ost Haus, the film crew that will produce the documentary of the expedition, and were able to get in some questions about their adventures so far and about the logistics of filming. All I could think about was how much the equipment they were lugging along weighed! The broadcasting and media production company followed the expedition’s every hike from the mountains to the sea, making some extra stops along the way to document epic sunrises and special places. The crew has also been conducting interviews along the way; will this be the lucky break yours truly has been waiting for? (If it is, I owe it all to my cute kiddos, who (hopefully) stole the spotlight from this sweaty mess!)

We retraced our steps on Sims Trail until we reached the boardwalk, and hiked it back towards the Visitor Center. At this point we lagged behind most of the group, as every spider was examined and the forest floor scrutinized for snakes. The Ranger entertained the boys with dozens of cool facts about all the things they spotted, and the “did you know” stories continued on the ride home and well into the next week. The boardwalk is also incorporated into a Kids in Parks TRACK Trail, forming a flat 2.4 mile loop through the floodplain forest; the Kids in Parks program is a network of family-friendly outdoor adventures that feature self-guided brochures and signs that turn your visit into a fun and exciting outdoors experience. Our total mileage of Sims Trails to Wise Lake and boardwalk loop back was over 5 miles after taking into account the detour for the boardwalk section that is still closed – the kids slept well that night!

A big thanks goes out to the SC7 team for having us along on a portion of their adventure! We really enjoyed the hike, and wish we could have tagged along the whole month. It was also a pleasure following the SC7 Expedition online, learning so much about the state of South Carolina and adding a slew of ideas to our list of places to visit. While the 2020 expedition might have come to a close in Charleston last week, the adventure continues; whether in our state and national parks or in our own backyards, the beauty and inspiration of the natural world is all around us. Can’t wait to see what is in store for us with SC7 2021!

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