Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hiking the Greenways, gateway to the Cape Fear Arch

OMG! - A rock outcrop! Dorothy, we're not on the Coastal Plain anymore.
I'm hiking east to west along North Carolina's Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  I started where the waves lap up against the sand.  I left the beach and tramped across tidal wetlands and adjacent bogs perched atop an accumulation of peat--collectively called the Tidewater region.  Somewhere in Pender County, NC, about the time I left Holly Shelter Game Land, I crossed into the geographic region of North Carolina called the Coastal Plain.

The Coastal Plain of North Carolina is wide and flat, consisting of very sandy soils overlying clay.  There are no rocks.  So when I encountered the rock outcrop shown above just west of the Wake-Johnston County line, I knew I had crossed what's called the 'Fall Line' and had entered North Carolina's Piedmont--literally 'foot of the mountains'--the bedrock-underlain transition lands between the coast and the Appalachian Mountains.

Geologically (and this is a serious simplification) the Piedmont is the stretched-and-rifted easternmost part of 'true' North America.  The Coastal Plain, on the other hand, actually belongs to Africa.  Its sandy soil is a continuation of the Sahara Desert.  A strip of Africa got stuck to North America and left behind when the super-continent of Pangaea broke up and the Atlantic Ocean formed.

Crossing this boundary onto the Piedmont is significant for another reason.  It marks the western end of the new, soon to be designated, Cape Fear Arch hiking route for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  It means my work is done.  I 'signed on' to this hike in order to scout the Cape Fear Arch route and work out some of the worst kinks.  From here on west any further hiking I do will be in a different mode.  I'll be a tourist, enjoying the fruits of the labor of hundreds of dedicated volunteers who have worked for decades to develop and improve this long-standing route for the MST from the Fall Line (Falls of the Neuse in our case) west to Clingman's Dome and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This last section of the Cape Fear Arch route follows a series of paved multi-use Greenways along the Neuse River.  It starts in Smithfield, where their three-mile Neuse Riverwalk, also known as the Buffalo Creek Greenway follows the river for a while but also traverses some wonderfully secluded woods:

Then there is some road walking, and I was able to revisit the very last chapters of the Civil War tale I wrote about in my last entry.  The Westbound MST Hiker has the privilege of following this history in chronological order.  Following the defeat of Fort Fisher near Wilmington, General William T. Sherman began his Carolina Campaign, intending to meet up with U.S. Grant and his northern armies.  The MST picks up the path as Sherman approaches Bentonville, NC after leaving Fayetteville.  There at Bentonville, Confederate troops led by General Joseph E. Johnston engaged the left flank of Sherman's army, intending to deal them an incisive blow.  Sherman responded, bringing his right flank to bear, and overwhelming the Confederate numbers.  The Confederates fled across the Mill Creek Bridge, burning it behind them, and headed to Smithfield while Sherman continued east to Goldsboro as he had planned.

But then after consolidating at Goldsboro, Sherman began a wide sweep west via at least four separate routes toward Raleigh.  The MST passes a plaque commemorating this advance, and specifically the left wing of it, which came through Smithfield:

Later, farther west, I also passed a plaque and monument commemorating the bittersweet 'Last Grand Review' of the Confederate Troops, held just a couple weeks before Johnston's surrender to Sherman - a surrender that came far more swiftly than anyone present at this grand review expected.

Next, after a pause to appreciate a grand old oak in a halo of morning sun ...

... I reached the beautifully vibrant old downtown heart of Clayton, NC, with its Main Street shops and restaurants all looking healthy and doing brisk business.

Then it was on to Clayton's 'Sams Branch Greenway' which reaches the Neuse and becomes the 'Clayton River Walk.'  Soon the Greenway crossed the Neuse River on an impressive dedicated footbridge that turns out to be one of nearly a dozen that somebody found the money to pay for.  (Editorial: Some of that bridge money ought to be spread out along more 'needy' sections of the MST.)

Here's the most impressive example from among the many Neuse River crossings and one of just two Suspension Bridges - all the others were truss-style, such as the one shown above.

Most of the Greenway route follows the river through woods with abundant glimpses of the water.  But there are places where it digresses - and wonderful digressions they are:

The clean white vinyl fencing is a signature feature of this newly completed section of Wake County's Neuse River Greenway.  It's first-class all the way.

Nature was in abundant evidence as I trekked on westward toward my rendezvous with Falls Lake.

There's a short section of the Greenway at Horseshoe Bend that's not yet finished.  A 'bridge to nowhere' marked 'Trail Ends' reaches this grassy slope down to the river, and behind me the construction equipment was hard at work as I snooped around.  This is the section scheduled to be opened in August, literally 'paving the way' to the new Cape Fear Arch route for the MST.

But the finished section of the Greenway resumes.  And before much longer, 6.5 miles and 175 yards to be precise ... there it was ... Falls Lake Dam and the Tailrace outflow.

And with my sighting of the first 3" circular white blaze since the Neusiok Trail, I knew that my mission was complete.

Time to tuck the straps of my Crocs behind my heels and prepare for some real trail - dirt and rocks and roots and mud.  It's been way too long in coming.  On to Falls Lake!


Here's a map of the hiking route covered by this report, and by clicking the link (the title line), you'll be transported to a slide show with dozens more interesting and documentary photos.

MST Days 44-47 - The Neuse River Greenway at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Raleigh, North Carolina

Friday, April 18, 2014

Crossing paths with William Tecumseh Sherman

Historic Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore MD

On March 21, 2015 Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County NC will be hosting a premier 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Bentonville - a confrontation that turned the tide on the Confederacy.  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail will be there, announcing its new route through this historic venue in August 2014. Tickets to the re-enactment go on sale September 1st.

On the field of battle that day, Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston crossed paths one final time with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.  They had met before, notably as Sherman advanced on Atlanta.  As then, Sherman was to prevail at Bentonville, and within six weeks Johnston was to surrender his armies.

Civil war adversaries who formed a life-long bond: Sherman at left, Johnston at right

Forget Lee and Grant at Appomattox.  I don't know why that event got all the press when the greater number of Confederate troops did not surrender until a couple weeks later when Johnston met Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham, NC.

Because of the generous terms Sherman offered during their negotiations, Sherman earned Johnston's life-long respect.  And their paths crossed in amity many times thereafter.

So here, finally, is the explanation of why I've posted the photo of Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery as the headline image for this post.  General Joseph Eggleston Johnston is buried there.  He died of pneumonia at age 84 a few weeks after serving as pall-bearer at the funeral of William Tecumseh Sherman.

I'm not sure that this story has ever received the attention that it should.  It's a heart-wrenching human saga, forever capping and entangling the lives of these two great generals.  Let me quote from the Wikipedia article:

"Johnston, like Lee, never forgot the magnanimity of the man to whom he surrendered, and would not allow an unkind word to be said about Sherman in his presence. Sherman and Johnston corresponded frequently and they met for friendly dinners in Washington whenever Johnston traveled there. When Sherman died, Johnston served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral; during the procession in New York City on February 19, 1891, he kept his hat off as a sign of respect in the cold, rainy weather. Someone with concern for the old general's health asked him to put on his hat, to which Johnston replied "If I were in his place and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat." He caught a cold that day, which developed into pneumonia, and he died several weeks later in Washington, D.C."

If any good comes from war, it is in stories of honorable men such as these.

Bentonville was the scene of their last angry confrontation.  Sherman had marched to the sea.  After Atlanta, Confederate president Jefferson Davis had made the controversial decision to dismiss Johnston, sending him into virtual retirement.  But he reversed his decision in the light of Sherman's subsequent Carolina Campaign, reinstating Johnston in February 1865, and Johnston dutifully answered the call with little time to assemble the scattered remaining armies of the South in an attempt to stop Sherman's advance.  In the end he was woefully out-numbered and could not win the day.  Following the battle, the Confederate troops beat a retreat to Smithfield, burning the Mill Creek Bridge behind him, thus preventing any pursuit by the Union army.

There's a new Mill Creek Bridge now, and it can't be burned - all concrete and steel.  And the MST uses it.  The westbound MST hiker has the privilege of hiking though these deep-etched memories in chronological order.  It was hard to hold back the tears as I crossed over Mill Creek and trekked on to the Hannah's Creek Bridge next to Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center.

Okay - deep breath.  Howell Woods - back to the 21st century - one of the new generation of interactive preserves.  A completely different tale for a different, more enlightened era.  Sadly all their trails were closed, presumably due to the snow and ice that dropped many trees over the winter.  But these are loop trails, not yet ready for MST hikers even in the best of times.

So the MST does not use the trails through Howell Woods yet.  Connections need to be established.  Instead, the trail follows the road that Johnston traveled on his retreat to Smithfield - Devil's Racetrack Road - presumably named for its constant unexpected bends and curves.  And at the end of the day I reached Four Oaks, a village on the outskirts of Smithfield and established a relationship with a wonderful hiker's retreat, practically right on the trail, called Four Oaks Lodging:

Here's a place to restore and refresh - to get a cheap room, to park your RV, or to pitch your tent in their fenced tent camping reserve with rest room and shower nearby.

Tent camping area at Four Oaks Lodging

If you're eastbound on the MST this is a great last pit stop before plunging into the long road walk through open country to Bentonville.  Four Oaks Lodging motel and RV center has been in business since the '70's but upgraded in 2006.  This is a clean and friendly gem of a place, barely a quarter mile off the MST route on US 301 just south of the I-95 interchange.  There's even a pizza place that will deliver to your tent.

On the other end of the trail segment covered in this report, I left Roseboro by way of a roofed walkway on a rainy day along their two-block-long old downtown sidewalk.

Then I passed beside the Sampson County Game Land where seven miles of off-road trail are planned and in the works, likely coming out on White Woods Road and intersecting with the road walk that is the trail's current route.

Next it was on to the little town of Newton Grove, passing a gas station-convenience store with a picnic table under a pavilion roof,

passing a Methodist church with an unusual open-bell on their steeple,

and passing an old, well preserved, well maintained home with even older and more well preserved oak.  I'm always a sucker for venerable old trees.

Next on the MST westbound agenda is Smithfield, famous for its cluster of major factory outlet stores accessible from I-95 and within a mile of the MST route.  For the fully accessorized tourist, this is a must.  For me and other trekkers-on-foot, perhaps not so much.  I will make a stop at the Crocs outlet.  I've hiked the entire MST to this point in my RealTree camo Crocs; and my happy feet are testament to their advantages.  Cushioning, breathability, complete indifference to getting wet, and surprising traction and durability.  This footwear and my trusty GoLite umbrella - rain protection without the internal sweat of a poncho or rain jacket.  And, with its silver reflective surface the GoLite umbrella also provides sun protection/portable shade for those hot road walks and beach walks.  These are two of long-distance hiking's most overlooked gear choices.  Get with the program, slackers!


Here's the GPS track of the route of the hiking described above.  And if you click on the title line you are transported to an extensive slide show - each photo tagged with its GPS coordinates.

MST days 41-43 - Bentonville Battlefield at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From Harmony Hall to Roseboro at a walking pace

And a walking pace seems appropriate in this rural corner of NC, full of country churches and steeped in history.  This isn't a place that time has passed by and left unchanged, but it's a place where it's easy to be patient, where walking a country road doesn't feel old fashioned.  It feels like a land where past and present coexist in a comfortable relationship.

At the southeastern apex of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail's Cape Fear Arch route is Harmony Hall plantation--one of the oldest surviving residences in North Carolina, built before the Revolutionary War by Col. James Richardson, who distinguished himself in the French and Indian Wars, was shipwrecked and fell in love with this corner of Bladen County while he laid up for repairs.  He was granted a tract here by King George III, built his home, and settled in.  The home may have played a role in the Revolutionary war, and is now rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of soldiers from that conflict.  The house is only open to the public for a few hours on weekends, so I didn't have the chance to take the tour, but I did loiter for a bit.

The next venue that the MST took me through was the Suggs Mill Pond State Game Land, centered on Horseshoe Lake where the photo up top was taken.  This Game Land focuses especially on waterfowl, and has an significant network of trails.  It's one of the more intensively managed game lands that I've visited.

The MST continues its northward trek toward Raleigh, passing this unusual monument, packed on front and back with genealogy information preserved for the ages.

I passed a quirky little sight that caught my fancy--suspended from a wire over the road was a shoe and a fishing reel, tied together by the shoe lace.

Finally the MST gives the hiker a wonderful taste of small town America as it passes through the 'neat-as-a-pin' little railroad town of Roseboro.  I was there during the height of spring bloom--wisteria, dogwood, and azaleas in full force, and redbud not quite finished yet.

I have more of Roseboro to walk through, so stay tuned.


Here's the GPS track of the hike through this section with a link to the complete slide show and more GPS info:

MST Days 38-40 - Suggs Mill Pond Game Land at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Two Trail Scouting Expeditions and what I found

This post is a little different than most of my other recent trail reports because it covers some hiking I did that is beyond just thru-hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) across North Carolina.

Being somewhat of a pioneer for the new Cape Fear Arch-Onslow Bight route for the MST I sought to explore some alternate routes in the area around Jones Lake State Park and adjacent Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest.

In the former (Jones Lake area) I found a possible future route with some great potential but requiring a bit of trail building.  But on the latter expedition, I struck the jackpot--a real gem of a route right along Turnbull Creek on well maintained interpretive footpath that can be hiked as-is today, though only during the times when Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest is open.  I'm recommending this route as the preferred option for hikers.

Turnbull Creek:

Bold Turnbull Creek as viewed from the Long Trail in Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest
Turnbull Creek Educational State forest is an underfunded over-performing 890 acre patch of North Carolina woodland.  Within it is a 4.5 mile trail they simply call the Long Trail.  Almost half of it is a to-die-for walk beside Turnbull Creek itself, complete with a couple of elaborate foot bridges, rest-stop benches and many interpretive signs.

The problem: Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest is closed from Mid-November to Mid-March.  It's also closed on weekends and is only open weekdays between 8AM and 5PM.

When the Forest is open, I highly recommend the route through it.  The forest route is 1.88 miles and replaces the alternative road walk on Sweet Home Church Road, which is 1.38 miles of quiet paved road.

In order to access the more remote end of the Long Trail there's a crossing of Turnbull Creek (the blue 'pin' on the right side of the map above) that needs to be accomplished where an old road used to cross, but where the bridge is now missing.  Fortunately there's a living, sturdy fallen tree that provides an easy crossing, including living branches that provide stable hand-holds.  Alternatively it's only a short ford wading the creek.

Former bridge site crossing Turnbull Creek
Living fallen tree just downstream of former bridge.  Easy crossing with living branches for hand-holds.

Because the MST can bring visibility (and visitors) to Turnbull, designating this route as the official MST route (when it's open) would be a great asset to them.

There's plenty of precedent for an official trail route that is only open certain hours.  The only white-blazed Appalachian Trail route passes through Bear Mountain Trailside Zoo, New York, which is only open between 10AM and 4:30PM.  All other times the hiker must follow a blue-blazed bypass.  Being a hard-core purist, when I hiked this area, I had to rearrange my plans to be able to pass through when it was open.

 Hopefully in the future, the park management can find ways to keep the trail open for longer periods.  Perhaps they will even be able to build a footbridge over Turnbull Creek where the old road bridge footings are still in place.  It would be no more elaborate of a project than two foot bridges that they have already built for the Long Trail itself.  Take a look at the annotated photos in the slide show for more info.

Here's the full EveryTrail trip report, including GPS info and a comprehensive slide show:

MST Day 36 supplement - Turnbull Ck Edu State Forest at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Fayetteville, North Carolina

Jones Lake State Park:

Remote and unspoiled Salters Lake seen from the only access point at the end of the 1.5 mile Salters Lake Trail, part of the proposed future MST route.

Here I hiked both the current MST route and a promising possible future route through Jones Lake State Park and adjacent Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land past Jones Lake and Salters Lake.

Long ago there was a road, still identified on many maps including that stored in my GPS and that given by my North Carolina map book published by DeLorme, called Jones Lake Road, which extended roughly northeast to southwest from Ruskin Road, passing the east end of Salters Lake, and coming out at the Bladen Lakes National Forest woods road called Salters Lake Trail.  Every bit of this road is still maintained with the exception of about 1000 feet crossing the wetland along the Salters Lake outlet stream, and even that crossing is kept open and maintained by Jones Lake State Park as a border monitoring trail.

Now ... if future trail enthusiasts could convince the authorities to allow them to build a bit of boardwalk across the wettest part (a hundred yards or so) and then clear some trail to the end of the forest road in Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land (see the details of the GPS tracks provided here), it would open up a route in which the MST could make use of half of the four mile Bay Trail circuit around Jones Lake and all of the 1.5 mile Salters Lake trail, including a nice piece of boardwalk.

Presently the MST route can use only a mile of the Bay trail before being required to 'bail out' and head into Bladen Lakes Forest on woods roads.  It's not an unpleasant route, but the hike past totally unspoiled Salters Lake, including access to it via dedicated foot trail and a rest stop beside the lake at a picnic table, would be a significant future enhancement.

Check out the slide show for a more visual look at the experience.

MST Day 37 - Jones Lake State Park at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Fayetteville, North Carolina

Saturday, April 5, 2014

North Carolina's mysterious, seductive 'Bays'

Pond Cypress on Jones Lake, surely one of the most photographed trees in eastern NC
'Bays' were once all lakes or ponds (such as Jones Lake shown in the photo above).  But most of them have filled, drained, or silted over since the last ice age.  They're abundant on the coastal plain of North Carolina, where the Tar Heel state got its name (rendering Longleaf Pine heartwood into tar for the shipping industry).  There are thousands of Bays.  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail takes the hiker through many smaller ones and past some notable large examples that are still lakes.

And nobody has a definitive explanation for why they exist, why they are so abundant, even overlapping one another, what caused their unique elliptical shape, or why every one of the ellipses is oriented in the same direction--northwest to southeast.  Here's a Google Map photo of the area:

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail route passes four of the major lakes in this shot: Singletary Lake, White Lake, Jones Lake and Salters Lake.  Click on the photo to get a closer look.  Note the elliptical shape and orientation of these lakes, then look for green patches, large and small, with the same shape and orientation.  There are hundreds in this photo.  There's even one that has been cleared and turned entirely into farm land (lighter in color).

Theories of what caused the 'Carolina Bays' range from a meteor shower, perhaps a soft meteor that broke up into many fragments before impact, Artesian springs boiling up from an underground aquifer, Sinkholes, Ancient sea-bed spawning nests for schools of gigantic fish, and wind-driven ocean eddies scouring these shapes before the land rose above sea level.  All of these ideas have some attractive features, but all have been rejected because of various flaws.  The meteor impact theory is the only one that proposes an explanation for the common orientation.  If so, the pock-marks would all have to be caused by a single event--a single parent meteor.  But carbon dating shows that these features are not all the same age, and furthermore, meteor impacts do not produce elliptical craters, even when they impact the surface at a very steep angle.

So what's the solution?  Earth Scientists haven't yet settled on a full explanation, but the strongest theory was proposed by Raymond Kaczorowski in 1977 in his paper "The Carolina Bays and their relationship to modern oriented lakes." Geol. Soc. Am. Abstr. 9: 151-152.  The concept is that the shapes have been produced by the action of wind--both through 'lacustrine' processes: the waves the wind produces, which erode and sculpt the shoreline of the lakes and ponds, and by 'aeolian' processes--piling the sand into dunes along the shorelines in a similar way to the way a high dune develops along the ocean beach.

It has been shown (see this informative Wikipedia article), that the orientation of the lakes (the long axis of the ellipses) is precisely perpendicular to the prevailing wind.  Kaczorowski looked at similar lakes on Alaska's north slope, in the Texas panhandle, and in southern Chile.  Take a look at the abundant lakes in the flat sandy and boggy tundra around Barrow, Alaska:

The prevailing wind is extremely constant on Alaska's north shore.  It's from the East to slightly ENE year-around.  And the lakes are all elongated precisely at right angles to that direction.  What happens is that the waves on the lake scour away the sides of the lake (by a process called along-shore drift) and deposit the sediments on the downwind shore, so that an initially random-shaped lake gradually smooths out and widens out on each side and flattens out along the shorelines that are perpendicular to the wind.  Voila!

In the flat, sandy, boggy lowlands of the Arctic these lakes have had only 10,000 years or so to take this shape since the ice retreated.  In North Carolina the prevailing wind in these flat sandy boggy lowlands is out of the southwest and a bit more variable; and the dating of sediments and the sand dune borders of the Bays shows that they have taken as much as 100,000 years to gradually evolve their shapes--all through the last ice age when harsh weather was more frequent.

So maybe the Carolina Bays are not quite so mysterious after all.  But they certainly are seductive.  Here's another glamor shot, also taken right from the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  This time the lake in question is Singletary Lake.

The sandy ridges that surround every bay are seductive in their own way, offering a desert-like environment where only scrub oak manages to eek out an existence.

These are some of the unique ecosystems that this new Cape Fear Arch route of the MST offers the hiker.  It was a great pleasure to traipse through this area, to take it all in, and to learn a little.  This report combines four days of hiking, from Moore's Creek Battlefield to Jones Lake State Park.  When I was not hiking the 'Bays', there were some other seductive sights.  The trail crosses the Black River, one of the major Cape Fear River tributaries:

 Spanish moss is abundant in the area.  Here's a nice morning shot:

And Longleaf Pine plantations are springing up all through this area.  They are an interesting sustainable agricultural crop - 'farmers' harvest and sell the pine straw as mulch.

And then there are the much more eco-disruptive agri-business-sized blueberry farms - this one seen from the MST along Barnes Blueberry Road:

Meanwhile in Whitehall Plantation Game Land they were doing a massive clear-cut of hundreds of acres.  Not my idea of managing a game habitat responsibly.  But there may be a long-term goal:  To get rid of the artificial plantations of fire-intolerant Loblolly Pine and replace it with the more natural Longleaf and Bay species.  I'll reluctantly give them the benefit of the doubt.

The ubiquitous Carolina Jessamine, an evergreen vine, was in full bloom:

And I managed to snap photos of a few cooperative wild trail companions:

Yes, I was thoroughly seduced.  I'm falling in love with the serenity of Bladen County, North Carolina, and can't wait to see what's around the next bend.


Below is a map of the route of my four days of hiking through this wonderful corner of North Carolina.  Included are a couple of exploratory side trips and a slide show with 89 photos documenting the route:

MST Days 33-36 The Carolina Bays at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina