Archive | Outdoors

Gaining a Foothold in the RAD

Rendering of Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by Glazer Architecture

Rendering of Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by Glazer Architecture

Twenty-one years after opening Climbmax one of the nation’s first indoor rock climbing gyms in downtown Asheville, Stuart Cowles is on the sharp end again.

In the early 1990’s Cowles left his job as a manager and designer at a climbing gear enterprise in Conway, NH with the goal of opening a climbing gym.

“That was the motivating factor to move to Asheville. I wanted a small city with a solid climbing community that might be able to support it,” he says. Since then, he’s roped in a loyal following and introduced hundreds of folks to the edgy sport.

Fast forward two decades and construction is underway on the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center in the River Arts District (RAD) that will open its doors later this spring or summer. On a small wedge of land on Amboy Road nestled between Carrier Park and the French Broad River Park, the enterprise will feature a state of the art climbing gym, a yoga studio, a beer tap, as well as bike, stand up paddle board and other gear rentals. The outdoor adventure facility was designed by the local architectural firm Glazer Architecture.

Cowles, however, isn’t jumping on the RAD bandwagon. In fact, the entrepreneur took the lead  of the Mountain Sports Festival as the first executive director over a decade ago. While it’s original venue was downtown, “the goal was always to move the festival to the river,” says Cowles.

In 1994, when Climbmax opened on Wall Street, downtown was just on the verge of its renaissance, much like the river district is today. “I decided I wanted to be in the heart of downtown. I looked at opening along the river 22 years ago — at the time it just wasn’t the right place,” he recalls.

Framing of the SMAC commenced on February 11, 2015

Framing of the SMAC commenced on February 11, 2015

But as the rejuvenation of the river district started to turn the bend, Cowles launched a search for another indoor rock gym venue in the RAD. The crux, he says, was finding a workable building for a climbing gym. With assistance from a Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority grant, Cowles decided to take the leap and design and build a new facility in the RAD. While he’ll continue to operate Climbmax, he’s hoping to tie into the growing demand for recreation along the French Broad.

“It’s really a perfect location since the river brings so many active people together,” says Cowles who intends to create a one stop destination for outdoor adventure. “We hope to be an anchor point, engage active people and keep them within the city limits.”

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A Flurry of Wintry Wanderings

 

iceflower

We’ve already had a couple of brutal arctic air masses intrude on our region this winter. When the temperatures drop below 10 degrees and the winds gust over 25 mph, most of us lay low, slow down, snuggle up and enjoy the post-holiday calm. This may be the perfect opportunity to stay indoors and scout out future outdoor adventures. Here’s a sampling of some chilling but not totally frozen seasonal options.

Urban Landscape and Boutique Adventures

Forget the car, hide the keys and search out a car-free outing. On a chilly day, walk or bus into downtown Asheville. Bundle up and take a brisk, self-guided tour of historic Montford isolating its unique architectural features—from corner turrets, to pebbledash exteriors, to hipped dormers. See if you can identify the recent ‘infill’ development, which includes green-built homes and new construction that replicate the Montford style. Stroll along Reed Creek Greenway from Weaver Boulevard to Magnolia Street, then reward yourself with a warming wintertime beverage at High Five Coffee. Jot down a winter/spring gear list while sipping on your coffee or chai.

After the break, hit the pavement again and climb Lexington Avenue into downtown. Crest Patton Avenue to Biltmore and browse seasonal sales at Mast General Store. Continue to shop local by visiting Diamond Brand’s new downtown outpost at the Aloft Asheville Hotel. Plan on a few hours to enjoy this little gem of an urban adventure.

Take a self-guided tour of historic Montford

Take a self-guided tour of historic Montford

Commute to the Commuter Stretch of Parkway

Chilly, sunny day? Grab some friends and head south, young men and women! Base out at Katuah Market in Biltmore Village and pick up some grab-and-go trail lunches. Drive south for a few miles until you reach the ramp for the parkway. Pull off to the right along the gravel parking area (MP 389) to pack your lunch and water, then cross the parkway and start your day with a four-mile out-and-back trek along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. This convenient and easy hike parallels the parkway most of its course. Some folks opt to spot a second vehicle along the parking area south (before the parkway bridge that spans I-26) to create a shorter 2.5-mile point-to-point option.

Highlights include a pine needle littered tour under towering white pines, frequent deer sightings and a mid-hike picnic along Dingle Creek. After lunch, gently ascend from the bottomland forest and start planning your next section hike while you still have a captive audience.

Pile back in the car, but instead of calling it a day, head to Biltmore Village to sample craft beers at French Broad Brewing Co. and Catawba Brewing Co. Both are conveniently located within a stone’s throw of each other, so you can add a bit more yardage to your day’s hike and not feel too guilty eating one of the delicious pretzels at French Broad.

Weather or Not?

So, it’s a totally freezing day—too bitterly cold to paddle, run, hike or walk. What can you do to get out of the house? When the going gets tough, this lifelong adventurer sometimes goes shopping. Here are a few of my favorite ‘shelters from the storm.’

ScreenDoor: It’s pretty easy to spend an hour or two browsing through the eclectic collage of antiques, yard art, home furnishings and garden treasures. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through a labyrinth while I navigate through the meandering aisles filled with inspiring creations. Be sure to browse the interesting collection of wholesale books next door, which range in subject from natural history and cooking to home interiors and kid-friendly reads.

 Earth Fare and Frugal Backpacker: This cross-training adventure blends gear and groceries. From downtown, go west and cross over the French Broad River. Bulk up on some dry goods, locally produced kombucha tea, artisan breads and organic veggies at EarthFare, then step next door to the local outfitter. Frugal offers a variety of closeout, discounted and manufacturers’ samples. It’s a great place to stock up on some keep-you-dry goods including socks, bivouacs, boots and other waterproof apparel. So next time the weather forces you indoors, take advantage of the opportunity and take the time to plan your next great adventure.

 

Urban Landscape + Boutique Adventures ~ Take a self-guided tour of historic Montford isolating its unique architectural features—from corner turrets, to pebbledash exteriors, to hipped dormers. Stroll along Reed Creek Greenway then reward yourself with a warming wintertime beverage at High Five Coffee. More tips? 

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ABCs for the New Year

Jonah Igelman walks the line

Jonah Igelman walks the line

I’ve never been the type of guy who’s stuck to my New Year’s resolution (but who has?). So this year I decided to take a novel approach: a list of activities to make the most of the outdoors and my neighborhood without all the driving. While gas prices may be at a two decade low, time is scarce, so here are my ABCs of New Year activities just beyond the front porch.

Arrange gear in my garage
Boulder the dam remains on the Hominy Creek Greenway
Cycle to the store more often
Discover five new running routes
Examine the ecology of a local watershed
Float the French Broad
Garden
Hang in a hammock and read
Identify edible plants
Juggle
Kick a soccer ball
Live outside more
Maintain a derelict piece of public space
Name every tree species on my street
Observe the night sky
Pack a picnic at the local park
Quote Walden in the woods
Run a local 5K
Slackline at the park
Track animal footprints
Unicycle
Volunteer for a park workday
Wage a water balloon fight
X-plore Buttermilk Creek
Yoga in the backyard
Zip down Sulpher Springs Road on a longboard

 

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Tis the Season to be Counting

 

Braving the cold for the CBC - Amy Kovach photo courtesy National Audubon Society

Braving the cold for the CBC – Amy Kovach photo courtesy National Audubon Society

This year marks the 115th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC.) Frank Chapman, an officer in the fledgling Audubon Society proposed the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional “side hunt,” where groups would choose sides and go afield, guns a-blazing and whoever came home with the greatest number of dead animals was declared the winner. Twenty-seven participates held 25 CBCs that day and a total of 90 species were recorded. The 2012 CBC had 2,369 counts with 71,531 participants and included counts in Canada, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. The number of birds tallied in that 113th annual CBC was 64,133,843.

CBCs are the grandfather of “citizen science.” And while citizen science may be sloppy science, it has also proven to be valuable science. There will not be 50,000 bespectacled scientists in white lab coats followed by their statisticians evaluating and recording all the nuances observed afield. There will be you and I and some birders better than we and some birders not so good. Not every birder participating in a CBC will be able to differentiate between a female sharp-shinned hawk and a male Cooper’s hawk. But 99.999 percent of CBC participants do know what a robin looks like and a cardinal and a chickadee and most can count. And learning about population and distribution trends of common birds is just as important (if not more so) as noting how many European wagtails show up on this year’s CBC.

With more than 110 years under its belt, the CBC is the longest running ornithological database on the planet. Scientists at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which has joined with Audubon to make CBC data more relevant and more accessible note that, “The CBC’s current relevance is as a comparative historical source of information on bird changes, a coarse means of capturing large bird changes, and a conservation-oriented recreational pursuit by birders. There are better ways of measuring changes in wintering bird populations. On the other hand, since the CBC system is already in place at no cost to anyone but those who participate and over long periods of time interesting trends are documented, the running of CBC’s by birders should not be discouraged.” Add to that a bibliography of scientific papers and articles that lists well over 250 titles that have incorporated CBC data and it becomes apparent that the science aspect of this citizen-science project, albeit primitive and unwieldy is of significant value.

CBCs help track the range-expansion of introduced species like Eurasian Collared doves. These birds began appearing on CBCs in the late 1970s. We had our first on the Balsam CBC back in 2005. creative commons photo

CBCs help track the range-expansion of introduced species like Eurasian Collared doves. These birds began appearing on CBCs in the late 1970s. We had our first on the Balsam CBC back in 2005. creative commons photo

But it was the citizen or social aspect of the CBC that got the ball rolling back 115 years ago and still sustains it. The camaraderie of being afield with like-minded souls probably rousts more CBC participants out of bed on those cold winter mornings than any thoughts of scientific contribution. And when darkness begins to envelope count day and participants gather to share lists and swap stories of the ones that did or didn’t get away it’ll be that camaraderie that takes center stage. And it’s that camaraderie that’s integral to conservation.

We didn’t create DuPont State Forest or preserve the Needmore Tract because we read, in some scientific journal, about the need to preserve biodiversity. We protected these areas because we were connected to these areas. We had experienced them. As the number of people who experience CBCs or other citizen-science projects increases the number of people who become connected increases. And the more people who are connected to more wild places, means more wild places will be protected.

For more info and a schedule of local and regional counts visit North Carolina Christmas Bird Counts and South Carolina Christmas Bird Counts.

 

 And, in the spirit, please enjoy:

 The Night Before Christmas Bird Count

by Don Hendershot

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas Bird Count and all through the house

Was the whirr of computers and clicks of the mouse.

Maps and notes were clipped to the copy stand with care

In hopes the long-billed curlew still would be there.

Compilers and counters tossed in their beds.

Visions of grosbeaks and palm pilots danced in their heads.

The GPS lay nestled and ready on the map;

Spotting scopes, binoculars all covered with lens caps.

Then all of a sudden, quietness — not clatter.

No mouses were clicking, what could be the matter?

On the screen was nothing, not even a flash.

How could it be — the computer had crashed.

There it was, quiet, not even a glow.

But wait, a laptop on the table below.

Quick type in birdsource.org and see what appears.

Whew, trogons and titmice, flickers and finches all are still here.

So reassuring to know; what a great trick,

Technology and nature merged with a click.

BBSes list CBCs, too many to name,

Bits, bytes and modems all part of the game.

On checklists, on palm pilots, listers were listin’.

On PCs, on Macs, ordinary citizens

Were lurking and threading, following it all.

Cyberspace packed as thick as the mall.

All the birds will be counted, most before they fly.

The rest will be IDed as they take to the sky.

Field guides perused by more than a few.

Sibley’s and Peterson and National Geographic too.

No source will be spared and that is the truth.

Wingbars and eyerings will be noted as proof.

Whistles and chirps and other bird sounds,

Properly noted and all written down.

Birders afield in boats and afoot

Will first count and then prepare to input

Data on species, data on numbers, in fact

Data all about birds; their presence — their lack.

Data on birds that eat seeds and eat berries;

Birds that nest in trees or in eyries.

Data spread across the WWW, high and low,

Just click on a hypertext and away you go.

There are cables and wires and plugs with teeth.

Some go over, around, or come up from beneath.

Small screens and big screens, the size of a telly,

All sitting on tables that wobble like jelly.

And placed carefully and safely away on a shelf,

A wireless computer one can use by oneself.

Into the field the counters are led,

Armed with technology from their feet to their head.

With Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss hard at work,

Birders count birds with barely a jerk.

Then off to Compaq or Dell or Macintosh they go

To key in their data under the computer’s soft glow.

When suddenly amid all the bells and the whistles,

A first year goldfinch clings to last year’s thistle.

And suddenly high tech or low tech, even no tech’s alright

It’s you and a bird sharing the same winter sunlight

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are regular winter visitors to Western North Carolina - Lewis Scharpf photo courtesy National Audubon Society

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are regular winter visitors to Western North Carolina – Lewis Scharpf photo courtesy National Audubon Society

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Going Green with Blueways

 riverlanding

There are many ways to salvation, and one of them is to follow a river.

                                          – David Brower

 Most of us are familiar with the benefits of greenways in our communities. The recent completion of Asheville’s Reed Creek Greenway Phase III is a good example: The 1,300-foot section bridged the existing paved trail to Glenn Creek Greenway, creating a green corridor from Magnolia St to Merrimon Ave. A connected community of parks, trails, recreation, transportation and health makes our region more livable and sustainable. But what about blueways? What are they, and what are their benefits?

Understanding Blueways

To begin exploring the concept of blueways, think “water trails” or “navigable waterways.” Blueways offer compatible and multiple use resources similar to greenways, and, realistically, they already exist. Lakes and rivers have always drawn people to their waters, and, by law, navigable waters are public thoroughfares. However, the lands along their banks and shores may be privately owned. So, blueways—or developed water trails—provide legal access points, signage, maps and other amenities.

Additional community support from user groups, government agencies, landowners, volunteers and outfitters can greatly expand a blueway’s development. Facilities such as boat ramps, camping areas and restrooms extend recreational opportunities along a trail and enhance a users’ experience. In some cases, the connectivity of multiple resources can transform a day outing into a multi-day excursion.

Blue Trail Issues

Blueways garnered a lot of national attention in May 2012 under President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. The Department of Interior unveiled an ambitious, albeit ambiguous, federal initiative establishing national water trails as a class of national recreational trails under the National Trails System Act of 1968.

The Secretarial Order established a network of designated water trails on rivers across the country. Key focus points of the program promoted outdoor recreation and national recognition to existing, local water trails.

Unfortunately, the non-regulatory program was dissolved two years later due to increased opposition from landowners, stakeholders and several politicians. Most of these skeptics cited an increased threat of federal regulation and an infringement on their property rights. However, regional and state blueway development efforts have propagated and have continued to prosper around the country.

 

blueway

Blueways in the Carolinas

The Carolinas’ currently have a number of blueway initiatives underway. The Carolina Thread Trail is a regional network of greenways, trails and blueways that meanders through 15 counties and two states. The “thread” includes 220 miles of trails throughout the foothills and piedmont of North and South Carolina. These multi-use trails are open to the public and accessible to nearly two million people who live, work and play within the region.

Smoky Mountain Host of North Carolina currently showcases a number of western NC’s rivers and lakes in their promotion of Smoky Mountain Blueways. The destination marketing organization serves seven western NC counties and the Qualla Boundary of the Cherokee Indian Reservation. According to their website, “Blueways (also known as blue trails) are the water equivalent to land based trails and greenways.” The organization reports that recreational trails often stimulate the local economy, preserve natural areas, promote healthy lifestyles, improve water and air quality, and connect people to natural places.

Southern Appalachian blueways and paddle trails also connect borders when their rivers and lakes meander through state lines. Close to home, the French Broad Paddle Trail includes a developing recreational water trail with designated campsites and boat ramps that stretches close to 140 miles through western NC and eastern Tennessee. In Tennessee, the paddle trail joins the French Broad Blueway, which includes a 102-mile section that flows to the confluence of the Tennessee River.

Connecting corridors with blueways, greenways, recreation, culture and natural areas links our heritage to our landscape. Some advocates treasure their rivers and lakes as tributaries to the past while others envision a blueprint for the future. Still others living along proposed corridors often oppose public trails and right of ways. Whether they are adjacent landowners, businesses or farmers, some express concern over privacy, government regulations and increased foot traffic.

TELL US: What’s your take?

We hope to open up a discussion and invite others to write about their ‘connections’ to rivers, parks, trails and other outdoor recreation topics. Send us your ideas, comments or news to Sammy Cox, coordinator: ashevillepocketguide@gmail.com.

 

 

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Birder Bucks

Birders at Beaver lake - Simon Thompson photo

Birders at Beaver lake – Simon Thompson photo

Birdwatching used to be for little ole ladies in tennis shoes. Those birdwatchers are joined today by “birders” that roll in Escalades with $1,000 Swarovski binoculars, spotting scopes at twice the price and enough photographic gear to make Ansel Adams roll over in his grave – driving cross country to tick off a common crane or scheduling a guided trip to India in quest of a mangrove whistler.

Of course, most people fit somewhere in between, but they all have one thing in common – a fascination for our feathery friends. A 2011 survey – National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (FHWAR) –teased the birders out of the overall group. They found that there were around 47 million birders over 16 years of age in the U.S. The greatest percentage, by far, of these birders (88%) were “backyard birders.” You know who you are – you put out seed feeders and hang hummingbird feeders and keep a cheap pair of Tasco binoculars and a 20-year-old Golden field guide on the table by the window. Thirty-eight percent of birders (yes there was a little double-dipping) said they take part in birding trips at least a mile from their home.

Birders spend money on a wide range of goods and services related to their passion. The list is extensive and includes optics, field guides, birdhouses, bird feed, lodging, transportation and more. And all of these expenditures have ripple effects throughout the economy. According to the FHWAR report the 47 million U.S. birders generated $107 billion throughout the birding industry, supporting 666,000 jobs and creating $13 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue. A 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study reported that “wildlife-watchers” in North Carolina spent about $827 million pursuing their hobby.

The Old Home State is a premiere birding destination and for good reason. North Carolina has recorded more than 460 species of birds, fifth highest of all states east of the Mississippi. Pelagic (offshore) species are a big draw to the state. The confluence of warm Gulf waters and cold Atlantic currents provide a melting (or cooling) pot of pelagic species. Inland, North Carolina has the greatest elevational range of any eastern state providing opportunities for low-elevation, marsh and estuarine species plus high-elevation specialties as well as anything in between.

 

Scarlet tanager - Simon Thompson photo

Scarlet tanager – Simon Thompson photo

Around 2003 a group of partners including Audubon North Carolina, North Carolina Resources Commission, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, North Carolina State Parks, North Carolina Sea Grant and the North Carolina Extension Service came together to begin work on the North Carolina Birding Trail. Part of the mission of the NCBT is, “To conserve and enhance North Carolina’s bird habitat by promoting sustainable bird-watching activities, economic opportunities and conservation education.”

During the next six to seven years the partnership worked to produce a series of guides or “Birding Trails” to help birders and other visitors to the state find great birding destinations plus “birder friendly” businesses and accommodations. They did this by creating three trail guides geared to the three distinct geographical provinces of the state – the Coastal Plains Trail Guide, the Piedmont Trail Guide and the Mountain Trail Guide. The area around Asheville and all of Western North Carolina is featured in the 105 sites listed in the Mountain Trail Guide. Some sites in and around Asheville include Beaver Lake Sanctuary, The Biltmore Estate and Devil’s Courthouse along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other sites in Western North Carolina include Kituwah Farm in Cherokee, Whiteside Mountain near Highlands/Cashiers and Lake Junaluska. Site descriptions in the guides include directions, access information, focal species and habitat listings, and on-site visitor amenities.

Birder friendly businesses in Asheville include Wild Birds Unlimited, The Compleat Naturalist and the North Carolina Arboretum. Ventures Birding Tours of Skyland offers guided tours year round in Western North Carolina, statewide, across the country and around the world. To find out more about birding trails and birder resources across North Carolina check out the NCBT at http://ncbirdingtrail.org/.

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Fish Oar Float

Jason Brownlee at work in the French Broad Riverworks shop within Carrier Park

Jason Brownlee at work in the French Broad Riverworks shop within Carrier Park (photo courtesy of French Broad Boatworks)

I recently caught up with Jason Brownlee, the co-owner of the French Broad Boatworks and Asheville native to chat about their handcrafted riverboats and upcoming river tours.

He and his partner William Evert, both avid anglers, skilled carpenters, furniture makers and homebuilders, joined forces five years ago to begin crafting high-end boats for fishermen. But not just any fishing boat, their fleet of hand crafted, oar powered river dories are top-of-the-line and a nod to the traditional ocean vessel that’s known for its seaworthiness and simplicity.

For land lubbers whose river craft knowledge may be limited to tubes and canoes, Brownlee explains that a river dory is kin to ocean fishing crafts designed with a wide flat bottom, pointy prow and stern, and high sides to ride safely on top of the current.

While the pair dabbled for several years on a design, their classic look they’ve adopted has been reengineered with an ultra modern light wood frame that is sheathed and protected by high tech material. However, the interior is where their woodworking skills really shine and gives the boats a nostalgic look they’d like to preserve.

But Brownlee isn’t just a dory enthusiast, he’s also a river advocate; the thirty-seven year old has seen the river corridor at its best and worst.

“The river district used to be an absolute wreck,” remembers Brownlee. But when the restaurants and bars started to make headway on the river, he knew the tides had shifted and wanted to get more involved with its revitalization. “We’re trying to be part of the experience,” he adds.

Brownlee, of course, is overjoyed at the rebirth of the river district and use of the river; he’d just like to give people the opportunity to glide downstream in high style.

Naturally, dories are ideal for anglers to cast on two feet, but its buoyancy makes for a smooth ride too and an ideal watercraft for birding, hauling camping gear, or just a gentle sunset cruise. So this spring, the pair is launching the Asheville Wooden Boat Tour to lure non-anglers to the experience of floating in a craft boat. The roughly one and a half hour tour will cast off from their workshop within Carrier Park to the Smoky Park Supper Club.

 “We really want folks to experience a drift boat,” says Brownlee. “It’s the only way to go down the river.”

Visit their website for more information about the Asheville Wooden Boat Tour launching this coming spring. www.frenchbroadboatworks.com

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Autumn Trip Tips, Part II: Hotlines and Fall Color Reports

photo (5)

The Blue Ridge Parkway may be the most popular and convenient fall leaf-viewing drive, but there are lots of other less-traveled opportunities to see the colors of the season. Explore Asheville offers one of most comprehensive digital guides to the area. The official Asheville Tourism site has a convenient one-stop guide to autumn that includes ongoing coverage from early to late fall. So whether you’re traveling by car, bike, motorcycle or by foot, you can select a variety of tours and hikes throughout Western NC.

 Trust us on this one!

You may have been to Hot Springs, but have you ever been to Trust, NC? Try this mid-fall excursion and head north from Asheville to Weaverville and stop by Well-Bred Bakery for a morning snack and a to-go cup of java. Take US 25/70 to Hot Springs and enjoy the brilliant colors of fall along the Walnut Mountains. The descending trip into the quaint river hamlet offers a dazzling array of fall color along the ridge tops and forest coves. Take a break in town and walk along the river to get an excellent open view of the autumn landscape. Better yet, schedule a half-day rafting trip down section nine of the French Broad and immerse yourself into four miles of fall splendor. Trip note: most outfitters require you to book your trip at least a day ahead. Climb out of Hot Springs along Hwy 209 for approximately 15 winding miles and take a left turn in Trust, NC onto Hwy 63. This last section includes beautiful vistas and historic farmlands of western Buncombe County. The 80-mile fall color tour can be driven comfortably in three hours. Take your time and enjoy the ride!

Follow the yellow blaze: Take a detour off Hwy. 209 south of Hot Springs to Rocky Bluff Recreation Area and the Spring Creek Nature Trail. The 1.6-mile trail offers a convenient leaf-lookers’ day-hike along the cascading mountain stream.

 Next up: Go west, brew enthusiasts!

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M & M’s on the River

Our last blog for our mammalian march along the French Broad will focus on two smaller furbearers, the muskrat (yeah, like Suzy & Sam) and the (don’t tell him he’s small cause he’s got as big ego) mink.

Muskrat swimming - creative commons

Muskrat swimming – creative commons

Muskrats top out at around five pounds and while beavers often go 30 pounds and sometimes 60 there is, occasionally, a little confusion. Sometimes people talk of seeing tiny or “baby” beavers around a beaver lodge – but the small critter they are seeing is actually a muskrat. Beavers often allow muskrats to set up an efficiency apartment of their own within the den. The thought is that beavers have nothing to fear from muskrats and having them around actually provides extra eyes, ears and/or noses to aid in the detection of predators.

Adult muskrats are about two feet long and up to half of that can be the long, bare, vertically-flattened (keeled) tail, which helps propel them in the water. These thick-furred brownish black rodents are highly adapted to their aquatic environment. Besides the keeled tail, their hind feet are partially webbed, their ears can be closed off with a membrane and they can easily stay underwater for 15 minutes.

The muskrat is found across most of North America from Canada to the Deep South (except for Florida where it is replaced by the Florida water rat, Neofiber alleni,) all the way to northern Mexico. Muskrats are promiscuous and may reproduce anytime of the year, they often produce up to three litters per year in North Carolina. While primarily herbivores, feeding on cattails, grasses, sedges, and other aquatic vegetation, muskrats are not averse to augmenting their diet with a little fresh meat, especially fresh-water mussels.

On the other hand, our next riverine rascal, the mink, is totally carnivorous – unabashedly so! This small predator, sometimes called “water weasel” is only 2 – 3 feet long, including 6-8 inches of tail, and weighs about three pounds. It’s primary diet includes fish, shellfish, crayfish, snakes and large insects, but it will sometimes prey on muskrats, nutria, rabbits, geese and swans.

American mink - creative commons photo

American mink – creative commons photo

The natural range of the American mink, Neovison vison, is from Alaska to the southern tier excluding drier parts of Arizona, California, West Texas, New Mexico and Nevada. It has been released, sometimes accidentally, in Europe where it has, unfortunately, thrived and become an exotic nuisance. It can be found across North Carolina and while the population is greater and more secure in coastal marshes and piedmont swamps it is found along the French Broad and other rivers and streams in the mountains. Protecting wetlands, especially wetland riverine ecosystems, is paramount to protecting mink populations.

Mink, like muskrats, are also promiscuous but they are not rodents and they only produce one litter per year. Minks breed in January and February but because they exhibit delayed implantation the fertilized egg is not implanted in the womb for nearly a month and they usually give birth to four or five kits in May.

Because of their small size, excellent senses (and desire not to be noticed) and the fact that they are primarily nocturnal, mink are some of the least-seen critters along the French Broad. You should consider yourself quite fortunate if you get to cross paths with this elusive “water weasel.”

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Up and Running in the RAD

Inside the Asheville Running Company

The Asheville Running Company in the River Arts District (Photo: Asheville Running Co.)

Randy Ashley is accustomed to being a step ahead of the pack. The accomplished distance runner had a successful competitive running career that spanned over two decades including qualifying for two Olympic marathon trials in ‘96 and ‘00.

Now he’s blazing new trail as general manager of the Asheville Running Company in the blossoming River Arts District (RAD).

“I noticed how busy it was at the Wedge and for art strolls,” says Ashley. “I thought someone ought to open a running shop.”

At first, everyone he talked with got cold feet. After all, the RAD may be known for its food, beer and art, but not for its retail shopping. Eventually owners Judi and Dan Foy, whose son was coached by Ashley at the Asheville School, loved his idea and in early September the store opened its doors in the Pink Dog Creative building located at 346 Depot Street, a former warehouse that’s now home to art galleries, two restaurants, and the Asheville Area Arts Council.

While opening a retail shop in what was formerly the city’s most desolate terrain may be chancy, Ashley is acquainted with the challenges. With a partner he opened a running store in Biltmore Park Town Square in 2002, but may have been a few years too early.

Now, with the booming running scene in Asheville and excitement about the revitalization of the RAD, he’s betting the time is right to get a foothold in the shoe business.

In addition to stocking a wide range of top-of-the-line running shoes, accessories and apparel, he also plans on bringing his passion for the sport, knowledge of the area, and skill as a team and personal running coach to the table.

The store hosts weekly group runs that Ashley says are non-competitive, “citizen-type runs” led by store ambassadors, while the footprint and design of their space allows them to host a variety of events, including a series of fitness programs.

“We want folks to feel welcome here and to take advantage of what we have to offer,” says Ashley. “We’re in this for the long-haul.”

To find out more about their weekly runs and other events, check out their Facebook page or their soon to be launched website at ashevillerunningcompany.com

 

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