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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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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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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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An Otter by any other Name

River otters

River otters

Following our furry thread from last post we will discuss another semi-aquatic quadruped occasionally encountered along the French Broad. The river otter, Lontra canadensis, formerly Lutra canadensis, is a sleek muscular creature well adapted to its aquatic lifestyle. Adult river otters grow to 40 – 55 inches in total length. A third of this is usually tail. The tail is thick at the base and tapers to a point at the end (not the flat paddle-tail of the beaver) and helps propel the otter through the water. They can range from around 10 to 30 pounds with average weight being between 15 and 20 pounds. The feet are fully webbed and its thick fur provides insulation and efficiently sheds water.

They are streamline – the thick neck is as wide as the head. The otter’s eyes and small round ears are set high on its head so it can cruise rivers, lakes and streams and still see and hear. Maybe, especially hear, as the river otter is pretty nearsighted. People in boats often think otters quite bold because they approach so closely but it’s more likely a result of their poor vision. But under water their nearsightedness becomes an attribute as it allows them to see better, particularly in murky water. A nictitating membrane covers the eye allowing them to keep their eyes open under water. River otters also have extremely sensitive whiskers on their muzzle called vibrissae, which are sensitive to vibration and touch. Add to that dexterous and sensitive paws and it’s easy to see that the river otter is quite adapted for its submerged foraging.

The river otter, like the beaver, had been extirpated from North Carolina by the 1930s due to hunting and/or trapping. The last documented sighting being in Haywood County in 1936. A reintroduction effort started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park led to the release of 49 river otters between 1990 and 1995. A group was also released in the French Broad in the spring of 1991. The river otter appears to be doing well and increasing in numbers across Western North Carolina. The swift swimming river otter preys on fish and aquatic invertebrates like crayfish, crabs (in the marsh) mussels, frogs and other amphibians and occasionally birds and/or small mammals.

River otter with lunch. NPS photo

River otter with lunch. NPS photo

Even staid scientists are pushed to explain some otter behavior in terms other than play and/or playfulness. These critters create long mud and/or snow slides (depending on environment) and appear to revel in sliding and splashing into the water. They have also been observed playing with sticks and dropping stones into the water, then retrieving them from the bottom.

Should you happen upon a river otter while paddling, swimming, fishing or simply enjoying the French Broad, consider yourself lucky on two fronts. While the river otter is making a comeback, it’s not extremely common, so you are lucky to get a view. Plus, perhaps in a larger sense, river otters are indicators of good water quality – the fact they are in the French Broad attests to the work done to make the French Broad a cleaner, healthier ecosystem.

Next post will be M&M – muskrats and minks!

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Leave it to Beaver

Beaver swimming - creative commons photo

Beaver swimming – creative commons photo

We’ve watched birds dive, glide and wade in and along the French Broad and we will surely watch more but for now we would like to turn our attention to some of the furry critters that one may happen upon in and along the river.

The American beaver, Castor canadensis, was common along and in the rivers, streams, bogs, swamps and marshes of the Eastern United States before European settlement. But for trappers they were just swimming bundles of money – an easy target. Legend has it that the last native beaver in North Carolina was trapped in Stokes County in 1897.

The state of North Carolina, at the urging of trappers and other wildlife enthusiasts, began reintroducing the giant (35lbs.–55lbs.) rodent about 40 years later. In the absence of large predators like red wolves and cougars – and the presence of good habitat the beaver population rapidly expanded and they can now be found across the entire state.

This compact, rotund rodent is covered with luxuriant brown to black fur and can reach lengths of 2–3 feet plus another 12-18 inches of flat, hairless, paddle-shaped tail that propels them in the water and serves as an alarm. When a beaver feels threatened or senses danger it will slap the water with its tail creating a thwack that can be heard at great distances both above and beneath the surface of the water. Their hind feet are large, webbed and clawed. The front feet are smaller and not webbed. Its four large yellowish-orange, ever-growing and ever-sharpening incisors provide the perfect tools for felling trees for food and shelter. The beaver is awkward and clumsy on land but in the water – sublime.

That large flat tail is both paddle and rudder in the water making beavers powerful agile swimmers. Valves seal their ears and nose while underwater and a clear membrane closes over their eyes giving them built-in goggles. Their lips close behind those incisors allowing them to gnaw underwater. They can stay underwater for as long as 15 minutes.

The beaver is second only to Homo sapiens in its ability to manipulate its habitat. And as the Bard would say, “…therein lies the rub…” The beaver’s hard-wired penchant for damming running water can sometimes flood low-lying areas, both agricultural and residential. And its tree-felling abilities sometimes put it at odds with landscapers and/or timber concerns.

But this same penchant makes the beaver a keystone species and its dams create more, ever-decreasing, wetlands, boosting biodiversity by creating habitat for a host of critters – fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds (wading birds, waterfowl and others) and other mammals like river otters, muskrats and minks. Beaver ponds also help control erosion and sedimentation plus recharge groundwater resources.

Beavers live in these dams but in other situations like deeper lakes and larger rivers (like the French Broad) they build lodges and/or burrow into the banks. All beaver domiciles have underwater entrances that lead to dry

Beaver lodge - creative commons photo

Beaver lodge – creative commons photo

living/nesting chambers.

These nocturnal rodents mate for life. They live in colonies that include the adult pair, kits (newborn) and yearlings. The yearlings are driven away usually after a year or so and left to establish territories of their own. The size of the territory depends largely on suitable habitat and food supply and can range from a pond of a few acres to a half-mile or more of riverbank.

Next month we will talk about the river otter another semi-aquatic mammal that has made a comeback in the rivers of North Carolina.

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In the Spirit of These Times

tgate

River Arts District Tailgate Market

What a wonderful July 4th weekend this year, right? Thirty percent humidity, crisp mornings and clear blue skies across our region. Summertime fun to be nabbed at every turn. I feel regenerated and hope you do, too. Of course, the season is far from over. Here’s a roundup of midsummer happenings and happenstances I discovered during my time off.

River Arts District Tailgate Market

Even though I was a little late for work last Wednesday, I pulled off Clingman Avenue, scored a perfect parking space and walked over to the River Arts District’s newest farmers market. Immediately, I spotted my friend, Neil, proudly carrying his weekly cache of CSA veggies. I scurried around the booths admiring summer’s early harvest of potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and fresh herbs. Next week, I hope to get my first taste of a locally grown tomato! The fresh vegetables reminded me of the farm-to-table dinner my wife, Candace, and I enjoyed a couple of days earlier. We celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary at Grove Park Inn’s EDISON. The local fare, North Carolina Craft ales and splendid mountain views, capped off a beautiful celebration – one that reminded both of us of our honeymoon trek along the Appalachian Trail and Lake Santeetlah.  

Trail Connections

Saturday, I found myself running along a sacred stretch of single track through cove forests, rhododendron slicks and George Vanderbilt’s personal footpath to Buck Spring Hunting Lodge. Earlier, I texted a friend teasing him that I was going on a “soul-searching” run in the High Country. Heading back from Bent Creek Gap on my out-and-back run, I heard some rustling along the heath thicket. Ambling along the dry leaves came the first of two black bears. Once they got wind of me, both bears seemed naturally curious about my presence. Their inquiring looks reminded me of my young chocolate lab’s meddling ways and natural curiosity. Once the young bears parted, I casually walked in the same direction then continued my holiday run to Chestnut Cove.

 

Sleepy Gap Overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Sleepy Gap Overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Reflections From the Viewshed

After my refreshing run, I cruised south along the Blue Ridge Parkway. There have certainly been some noticeable changes along the parkway and neighboring national forest since I moved here 25 years ago – much more activity and demand on our natural resources. The Sleepy Gap parking lot spilled over with cars, tourists and day-hikers as I descended a couple of thousand feet in less than 10 minutes. Down by the river, a group of paddlers launched their watercraft into the confluence of Bent Creek and the French Broad. A few paddle boarders appeared to be standing on water as they gently glided downstream. Heading north, I exited onto Amboy Road and took a brief stop at Carrier Park. A couple of locals were enjoying their morning on the lawn bowling green. The park was filled with folks cycling, walking their dogs and enjoying the holiday weekend. I never take days like this for granted, but I have to say that playing outdoors in our region is relatively easy whether it’s a holiday or not. That’s what I’ve always appreciated about our outdoors community that actively engages itself with the mountains, forest and streams. I’ve lived closely by a quote of Edward Abbey who reasoned: “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.” Take the grumpy old desert rat’s advice and get out and enjoy it this summer!

So what’s in your back pocket? The Asheville Pocket Guide invites you to share your seasonal adventures with us! Email: ashevillepocketguide@gmail.com.

 

 

Midsummer playlist:

Mr Cody, The Honeycutters
Relatively Easy, Jason Isbell
Fisherman’s Blues, The Waterboys
Four Miles, Town Mountain
A Feather’s Not a Bird, Rosanne Cash
Disappearing Ink, Randall Bramblett
Coast, Eliza Gilikyson

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Dinosaurs on the River

Great Blue Heron Burg Ransom photo

Great Blue Heron Burg Ransom photo

The early morning sun is a fuzzy red ball in the dense fog. It’s hard to tell where the fog stops and the water starts. Your eyes strain to pick out the next rock or riffle before you’re upon it. The boat glides silently on the water; the only sound is the water dripping off your paddle as you scan the river.

Gggrrrruuuaaannnkkk! The bellow shatters the silence, followed by loud splashes, then the rhythmic thuds of large wings in the foggy abyss; a dark shadow approaches in the fog. The archaeopteryx – oh, wait, that can’t be an archaeopteryx – it’s much too large! It can only be one thing – a great blue heron.

This modern-day avian dinosaur, which can reach a height of four feet, is more than twice as large as its eons-old ancestor the archaeopteryx and in flight the great blue might evoke images of that other flying lizard the pterodactyl, with it’s slow deep wingbeats, long trailing legs and it’s big-headed appearance. The heron gets that exaggerated head look because it flies with its head close to its body, its long neck curved “S” like. Cranes, on the other hand fly with their necks extended.

This large blue-gray wader with its black and white head can frequently be seen stalking the shallow waters of the French Broad looking for prey. Prey could be anything from frogs, to insects, to small mammals and/or reptiles to fish. The heron has a long, strong, sharp beak. It will grab smaller prey in its mandibles but it often uses its spear-like beak to impale larger fish. Great blue herons nest in the area and can be see year round on the French Broad.

Green Heron Burg Ransom photo

Green Heron Burg Ransom photo

Its smaller cousin, the green heron, may be seen along the French Broad from late spring till early fall. Green herons nest in the region but they overwinter from South Florida all the way to northern South America. This crow-sized little heron might, if stretched, reach two feet tall. The adult’s back is a rich teal color and its neck and face are a rich chestnut – the throat is white and it has a dark cap.

The green heron, formerly “little green heron” is also known by a couple of descriptive colloquial names, both related to calls. Skeow is one and relates to its loud “skkeooww” alarm call. To the Cajuns of South Louisiana the green heron is known as “kop – kop” for another common call it makes when flushed from its marshy habitat.

The green heron is an expert fisherbird. It will use baits, both live (insects, earthworms) and artificial (twigs, feathers) to attract fish, which it either grabs or spears. The green heron feeds in very shallow water (four inches or so) and feeds on crustaceans, amphibians, fish, reptiles and insects.

Either or both of these avian dinosaurs may be found along the French Broad. To enhance your chances of seeing one or both try hitting the water in the early morning or evening when these stalkers are more active.

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River Rendezvous

Urban infill, greener pastures and Elvis sightings were discussed during the monthly RiverLink bus tour.

Urban infill, greener pastures and Elvis sightings were discussed during the monthly RiverLink bus tour.

A dozen or so curious guests and I spent the first full day of spring touring the river district—an adventure I highly suggest you sign up for (details below).  Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink, guided us along the informative bus tour, which featured the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. Even though I’ve lived here for nearly 25 years, I soon discovered several new chapters about the local history, recent riverside developments and future plans along the corridor.

Cragnolin shared intriguing stories ranging from a mystery bystander named Rockefeller to a close encounter with Elvis. In between these tales, we learned news about the bridge-to-bridge development of New Belgium Brewery, crossed over a stream with no name, and heard about a trolley era transportation system that was once powered by a hydroelectric plant on Hominy Creek.

The French Broad has a life of its own, and there are many ways to interpret the people, places and events along its historic past. It was fascinating to connect Asheville landmarks with their origins. When we dig a little deeper into the past, we better understand the present world we live in. The way we historically move people is a stellar example.

The first street railway in Asheville operated in 1898 and ran from Depot Street to the Public Square (Pack Square). In its heyday, the expanded operations carried over three million passengers annually along 18 miles of tracks in 43 streetcars. Once, the trolley lines extended west of town as far as the present location of The Asheville School. Eventually, around 1934, buses replaced streetcars.

During the tour I noticed our present-day system, an Asheville Redefines Transit bus, as we turned down Clingman Ave., passed the RiverLink office, and headed into the River Arts District (RAD). As we entered the RAD, Cragnolin reminisced about the district’s vacant buildings and warehouses when she first moved to Asheville. Today, she shared, the district includes one of the highest densities of artist-owned properties in the country.

Current riverside development features the shipping container architecture of The Smoky Park Supper Club.

Current riverside development features the shipping container architecture of The Smoky Park Supper Club.

The tour included historic sites as well as unsightly scenes along the riverfront. Abandoned warehouses, brownfields, steep slope development and former landfills became part of the discussion. She pointed out that our river faces ongoing challenges including poorly managed steep slope development, habitat degradation and urban runoff. RiverLink’s  “Forever Option” guides the nonprofit’s long-term land-use strategy and conservation efforts. These conservation easements permanently protect riparian corridors and water quality along waterways.

The tour continued with an eastbound journey along the Swannanoa River, a major tributary of the French Broad. The river’s course meanders 22 miles through Buncombe County, with land uses along it ranging from antique warehouses to a reclaimed recreational park. As we traveled near the WNC Nature Center, Cragnolin revealed that Thomas Wolfe often retreated nearby to a rustic cabin on a knoll above the river. Asheville’s native son maybe best known for looking homeward, but he also wrote a sequel to the classic entitled Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth.

Today, we enjoyed our time along the river. The Asheville Pocket Guide is all about connecting you to these unique places and stories, both old and new! Take a tip from us and experience the river up front and personally. Connect with your hometown river and the French Broad watershed on these monthly two-hour guided tours of the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan. $/Members Free. For more info, visit: riverlink.org.

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