California Rattlesnake Encounter of the Close Kind

We usually don’t stray far from the coast. On a typical week during the summer, I usually don’t make it more than 10 miles from the coast, buried in the fog and salty air or under towers of redwoods.

Recently, fires broke out in the mountains to our east. We debated which high vantage point to visit to see the fires, or at least the smoke and opted for the one farthest away, hoping to avoid the commotion.

Smoky and Foggy View

The Road Less Traveled [or less shot at]

At the top of Horse Mountain, we didn’t really have a clear view from the usual vantage points, so we trekked up a hill covered in waist-high hoary manzanita and huckleberry oak. Unfortunately, as we just crested the hill, some teenagers pulled up to our car and began their target practicing. Without a clear visual on which way they were shooting, we decided to abandon the little goat path we were on and bushwhack down to the dirt road.

Oops.

See it?!

Bashing through the huckleberry oak wasn’t my favorite–too many spiderwebs [of imaginary black widows, of course], so reaching an open rocky patch was a relief. Just then, the boys with guns broke out their larger arms [a shotgun, I guess], and BOOM! My husband and I, a little PTSD-y from the last time we were shot at, ducked. To my surprise, my husband then took a flying leap, like a wide receiver catching a hail Mary. A low insect buzz accompanied the flying leap: our first meeting with Crotalus oreganus oreganus. Apparently, they don’t like loud booms and people stepping within 6 inches of them.

Here Be Dragons

I’m not going to lie, we were both scared.  I still am not sure how scared of the snake we would have been without the pop and boom of the guns. Considering we stood in that rocky patch for quite a while with the snake pondering our options, I guess we were more worried [or at least I was] about the target-shooting teenagers and the blind approach up to them than standing within a few feet of a rattlesnake.

A Less Hostile Reptile

Eventually we left the rattlesnake, made it to the road, tried to get back to the car, gave up, and walked the other direction until the boys left. No holes in the car and no holes from rattlesnakes. It all worked out in the end, but I’m pretty sure my husband won’t go back until those rattlesnakes are buried under feet of snow again.

Layers of Hills

Conflict: How Best to ‘See’ Nature

My job doesn’t often involve conflict, but I often feel divided on how to approach certain subjects. One subject that I feel is ever-difficult to tackle is if someone has very little time, how should they best ‘get a feel’ of a place: driving all of it, or hike one single, short trail. I find myself agreeing more and more with Edward Abbey. Of course, not fully; I don’t find it necessary to include blood in hikes and travels.  I do appreciate those [i.e. tourists and visitors] that want to marvel at something natural, because that is the path to understanding and appreciating a resource, but I do often disagree with the manner in which people prefer to ‘take it all in’.

It is hard to dispute that America is a car culture. It is equally as hard to dispute that what you see from your car isn’t even half of what you see on foot.  Some folks do feel that just driving through an area means they have ‘been there’ and they can mark it off their list. The loss is theirs, to an extent. I won’t even go into the benefits of physical activity and what the car and television have done to us.

Abbey, while extreme, brings up a good point in his quote below long before cars were so climate controlled, equipped with entertainment centers and pleasant to sit in for long periods. Imagine what he’d say if he found out that children in the future will no longer look out the car window, but instead stare at yet another screen!

Boy Scout Tree Trail

“Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot – throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?”
Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire Introduction page xii, Ballantine Books, New York, 1967

I don’t know, I do rather like people coming to visit National Parks. I be out of a job and entertainment otherwise. But Abbey’s point boils down to the fact that you will glean nothing substantial [aside from treasured family memories, which he doesn’t care to acknowledge] from a place you visit just in your car. And even if you hop out onto a trail, you will still likely not “see anything”.  In order to understand a place, one has to become infused in the essence, character, and rhythm of the place, and that takes time. More time than downloading an app and snapping some shots.

I feel that I accomplished that in the Badlands. It was almost an insult to hear someone condemn the place as ‘snake infested’ and ‘hell-like’ after I had spent hours listening to meadowlarks and grasshoppers and the wind whisper through the prairie grass like frolicking kids playing muted flutes as they skipped around with abandonment.  Such quick judgments without a second thought! But they had no time to investigate, less than an hour was allotted on their trip to pass judgement on a place, check-mark it, and then move on to the next item on the list.  Hard to compete with Wall Drug these days.

Redwoods on Lost Man Creek Trail

The Redwoods are no different. They are an area most people have on their lists, but frequently as just a stop over or at worst, something to drive through on the way to another destination. The only difference is that I myself haven’t had the time to get to know the forest, only to do recon so far.  I had the advantage in the Badlands of living in them, hiking around every evening and day off.  Here, I haven’t made it past my to do list; haven’t had the time to just sit for hours on end with my face in the duff, watching as the mechanisms of the forest move like gears in a giant, fern-covered watch.

The number of trails I’ve hiked is far overshadowed by the number I haven’t, but I rather walk them purposefully than merely check them off my list. Boy Scout Tree Trail was a very nice hike. There are lovely trail descriptions on the web already, so I don’t need to rehash any of that. In my opinion, the best part are the unique and characterful redwoods dotted along the trail side.  The oddness of each hints at their interesting pasts and makes one wonder at their future.

Twin-like Trees on the Boy Scout Tree Trail

I also managed to squeeze in a three hour mile of the Lost Man Creek Trail. Once a logging road, the trail leads along the creek as well as redwoods that show obvious signs of the recent past. Scars from passing logging equipment not only expose the inner layers of the tree, but also the carelessness of our use of vehicles. I’m sure the thought was that the trees will come down,  so no bother. I try to bite my tongue at the irony that the same mindset occurs today even with the trees protected. The same carelessness is facilitating damage to the trees that were spared the ax and saw. Are the redwoods that remain just elegies and tombstones?

Scarred Base

The Old Logging Road

Scarred and Gone on Lost Man Creek

Congaree National Park

 On our visit to Congaree National Park, we found out just how scared we both are of squirrels. Perhaps scared isn’ t the right word; maybe cautious is more accurate, but being on an 8ft high boardwalk with nowhere to run and a very curious squirrel is a situation in which one should be….cautious. [Most injuries at Grand Canyon National Park are caused by people trying to feed squirrels and their kin!]

Other than the squirrels, we had a wonderful visit to a floodplain that has been preserved for future generations. Eighty percent of this amazing park floods about ten times a year [hence why sections of the boardwalk are 8 ft above the ground]. If you ponder it, many National Parks feature erosion [Grand Canyon, Badlands, Bryce, Yosemite, Arches, etc] and only a few are dominated by deposition, but Congaree is a story of both, washing away and depositing sediments.

There are plenty of trails to walk or canoe in the park. The walking trails are both on boardwalk and on the ground and are great for spotting birds, looking at large cypress and tupelo trees, and just using your legs! Even though you are on the boardwalks, it doesn’t mean that you’re separated from the natural world. There is plenty of nature LIVING on the boards and if you look closely, you’ll spot a few neat critters, I am sure!

The neat story behind this park is that it was ‘saved’ from chainsaws. The virgin timber was in high demand but the area had, up until that point, been relatively untouched [sound like ANWAR??]. Through the conservation efforts of one man rallying the community, the trees were saved and steps were taken to preserve what is now the largest area of old-growth floodplain forest in North America.

Lots of walks, talks, and guided canoe trips are offered, even in the winter.  For mosquito season [it is a swamp, of course!], they have a screened-in patio with seating that is apparently for interpretive talks. And to take the guesswork out of how many mosquitoes are out there, they have a “mosquito meter” above the bathrooms, ranging from ‘All Clear’ to ‘War Zone’.  The visitor center is large, lovely, and has lots of neat information [ignore the exhibits mentioning it as a National Monument–it just recently became a National Park].

The moss marks the average flood line.

 

A canoe trail

 

A tiny Magnolia Jumper patrolling the boardwalk.

 

Reflections in the swamp's blackwater.

 

Why hello there!

 

A beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk that didn’t mind us.

For a few more shots of the Park, you can visit my Picasa site: http://picasaweb.google.com/sniehans/20101222Congaree

For official information about the park, go to www.nps.gov/cong

Hiked It Smokies-Style!

A Busy, Busy Place!

Made it to the Smokies right before Labor Day. The first night we camped we were the only ones in our loop! We decided to get all the touristy spots out of the way before the crowds showed up, so we did Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome the first day and there weren’t too many people [still not few enough for me!]. 

Newfound Gap

Clingman's Dome

I found that a circular polarized filter did wonders to cut through some of the smogginess. Whether I remembered to use it was an entirely different matter! 

The Sinks

Cades Cove

 The Ol’ Dusty Trail’s Calling!

After seeing the sights, we decided to hit the trail. It’s difficult to interpret the trail guides and what they define by ‘moderate’ and ‘strenuous’. Taking faith in the fact that they wrote these guides for hikers, and not the average park visitor, is the best way to go, but as you walk up Clingmans Dome with the rest of the world huffing and puffing in your ear, you start to think that the trail marked ‘strenuous’ is calling your name! 

We started our second day late…we don’t have watches and cell phones in the Elkmont Campground are about as useful as a rock [actually less so]. By the time sunlight reached the tent, it was 10 am! I was hoping to get in two smaller trails, but we settled for Rainbow Falls. It went on for quite a while, had beautiful scenery, and some bear sign. The construction workers who were on the road that leads to the trailhead said they’d seen so many bears while working and some other visitors asked if we brought our bear spray. But alas, no bears, just their scat! 

Some critters we shared the trail with: 

Pelecinid Wasp

Pipevine Swallowtail

 

The trail gained 1500 feet in 2.6 miles and was labeled ‘moderate’, which I would agree was fair. It wasn’t too rough of a trail and we only saw 4 other people, I believe. When we finally reached Rainbow Falls we realized that 1, it wasn’t late enough in the afternoon to see the rainbow, and 2, that there wasn’t enough water to make a rainbow! 

Rainbow Falls

It was still a lovely place eat our lunch. As we did, I pulled out my cell phone to turn it on and check the time and aparently, that wasn’t a move appreciated by the hornet nest right above us! They started to swarm and we traded our lovely spot for something more on the safe side. 

Although the Park is renowned as Salamander Capital of the World [no joke! http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/amphibians.htm], I think this fellow below was a newt. Shucks! 

Newt, I presume

The Roughest of Them All!

We started out on Ramsey Cascades Trail later than we hoped, but pretty sure we’d make the 8 mile round trip with plenty of time to spare. This trail is labeled ‘strenuous’ due to the 2000+ feet of elevation gain in 4 miles, which doesn’t sound all that bad. What they don’t mention is that about 1500′ of that elevation gain  is in the last quarter-mile of the trail. Of the ten people we saw on the trail, all of them said it was worth it, but I’m pretty sure no one would turn around at that point anyway! 

The Trail Goes Up!

The trail starts out smooth enough as what seems to be a road! Eventually it shrinks into a one-laner, then goes up and down a couple of times and finally, you get to the boulder-laden trail, the last bit of which nearly requires all four limbs in some spots. We were very glad to see this sight: 

Ramsey Cascades

Just like Rainbow, there wasn’t much water falling, but it was beautiful none the less. And we were warned at the trailhead that this would be a very wet trail if it rained, so I was glad that amount was falling and no more! These are the tallest falls in the Park. 

A Lower View

Again, the polarized filter came in handy and I learned from the previous day’s hike at Rainbow that a tripod was necessary, so I hiked all 8 miles with one strapped to my back and I was very glad I did! 

Oh Bother, Why Bother?

If you aren’t a trail-pounder and if you’re like me and don’t love crowds of people with you on your vacation, you’re probably wondering why should you go to the most visited National Park in the country [though I’ve NEVER heard anyone ponder this, but just in case!].

Cabin in the Woods

It’s an amazing park that has something for everyone, from long, scenic car drives to nice road-side strolls, wildlife, wildflowers and history. If you’re more adventurous, there’s backcountry camping and strenuous hikes to amazing vistas and waterfalls. And there are tons of car campgrounds to fit anyone’s fancy.

One of Millions!

The most alluring aspect of the park is, of course, the topography and the flora and fauna it hides. There is something ethereal about the way that twilight seeps out of the ground and tree trunks as the sun sets, keeping the tops of the trees glowing long after any light can reach the ground. It’s as if the hills have protected this place from passing time, harboring the ancient trees and denizens of forest creatures in deep, vibrant green valleys.

Setting Sun in the Treetops

I’On Swamp Trail

Update!

I’ve been getting a lot of hits on my blog about the Ion Swamp Trail so I went today to check out the conditions.

Flooded Trail in January. High and mostly dry now!

It’s fully passable, just muddy in a few spots and there’s a breach in the dike where you have to walk over some small branches, but the mosquitoes weren’t awful and the birds are very active!  There were a few deerflies around the parking area and at some of the more clear points of the trail. 

We spotted a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a Prothonotary Warbler, a recently-emerged dragonfly, and a few herps.

There were a few trail guides at the kiosk interpreting the rice field history and explanation of the name of the swamp as well as the confusion with the name.

To get there: Take Highway 17 North towards Georgetown. I’on Swamp Rd is almost directly across from the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center [neat place to visit, I think they are still open despite what Google Maps says], but 100 yards or so before if you are coming from the south. Highway 17 is a divided highway and there is an median access directly across from I’On Swamp Rd, which is on the left.  The road curves here, so it’s not too hard to miss. Once on I’On Swamp Road, drive about 2 miles on the gravel road, passing two roads on your left and one on the right [although it’s on a curving-left so you might not see it]. The parking lot for the Ion Swamp Trail will be on the left side.

A Gator-filled Santee Coastal WMA

This place is fabulous, but a little confusing.  Here’s why:

If you google Santee Coastal Wildlife Management Area, you will also find the Santee Coastal Reserve. Probably the same thing since both are listed as having 24,000 acres.  With the Santee Coastal is the Washo Reserve.  Good luck with boundaries and who manages what.  The State of South Carolina perhaps runs both, but the Nature Conservancy acquired the Washo.

My advice if you’d like to hunt in this area, contact someone there first and get it all sorted out.  We found a clipboard on an information kiosk that has the number of feral pigs tallied out.  One fellow got 12 in one day! And, as we were dodging gators, we heard a pig squeal! So if pig hunting is your thing, there are probably tons out there for you.

•» Where is the Santee Coastal Reserve «•

Just north of McClellanville, SC and just south of both forks of the Santee River on Highway 17.

Google Map:

Trail Map from Kiosk:

Click to enlarge

It is purported that trail maps are sporadically available at the information kiosks. The trail system isn’t complex, but it’s always good to know where you are going. Perhaps snap a shot of the map and refer to it on your camera when necessary.  The plastic over the map makes it a bit difficult to do so, by the way.

•» What to Do in the Santee «•

Trails:

Already mentioned was gator dodging and pig hunting. There are a good number of hiking trails and depending on the gator activity, they could take you quite a while. Try the links below, they will take you to SC Trails.net:

Woodland Trail

Bike/Hike Trail

Marshland Trail

We walked the Marshland and part of the Bike/Hike Trail.  Off the Marshland is a boardwalk that keeps you above any alligator traffic, but once you pass through the forest section after the boardwalk, be prepared to be dodging gators on both sides while walking through the impoundment areas.

We went on a very active day, one of the first days that were warm enough for copious amounts of gator activity.  While on the boardwalk, we heard an alligator thrashing and making a horrid choking or gargling sound…or maybe that’s what it was eating…we could only see the ripples and occasionally a tail through the cypress and tupelo.

Birding:

“This site has been identified as being significant for world bird conservation and officially designated a globally important bird area”  —Sign posted before boardwalk. American Bird Conservancy ABCbirds.org

This area is reowned for its birdwatching.  Check this list from the Carolina Bird Club’s Wikipedia entry to see what could be there. As you drive through the pines, look for the trees with the white rings around the trunks, then look up in for a small hole with sap running down the bark. These holes are possible nesting cavities for the red-cockaded woodpecker. This area has one the higher concentrations of red-cockaded, check the USGS Map!

As you walk around the Reserve, keep your ears open! The forests and cypress swamps are dense and even though you might not see it, you’ll probably hear it! We heard a “Who-cooks, who-cooks-for-you-all!” while walking near the boardwalk. Is that what they’re really saying? I think it’s “Give me back my ball!” Just put an owl accent to that, and it sounds exactly like the barred owl’s call.

I believe, but am not certain, that the Santee Coastal is open one hour after dawn and the Washo Reserve is open from 1-5, according to their site. Not sure if they are still enforcing those hours or not.  But early morning hours would probably be best to view and photograph birds, especially since the sun will be at your back for the boardwalk and good portions of the trail.

Check the photo gallery page of the Carolina Bird Club to peek at some great shots taken locally!

Wildlife Watching:

There seems to be a large potential for wildlife viewing during prime hours.  Besides alligators and the destructive wild pigs, there are also alligators, anoles, turtles, gopher tortoises, deer, and amphibians. It is recommended not to bring your dog and also to not throw anything in the water. According to one of their info boards, “a splash means food.”

Most of the gators on our visit did the splashing, right before we spotted them. It seems to serve as a defense mechanism, much like mourning doves use where they wait until you are reasonably close and then launch up. In this case, the alligators wait until you are within 20 feet or so, then violently thrash through the water using their powerful tails.

*Did You Know*: The part of the head that is visible above water, the snout and eyes, is about a sixth of the alligator’s total length! Half of the body is made up of tail, a very powerful mass of muscle!

This fellow to the left took a keen interest to us.  He was laying on an adjacent bank and as we approached, he quietly slipped into the water, swam towards us, and then slowly turned to climb on the little knoll there.  I think he was hoping for something else.

Thanks for visiting!

Endless Edisto Beach State Park

Lots to Do, Lots to See, So Little Time!

Sunset on Edisto Island

Wow, there is literally something to do for everyone on Edisto Island [pronounced ED’i-stoe, not that I’m successful at saying it that way]! From fishing to biking, hiking, birdwatching, camping, shell hunting, seasonal hunting, to planation touring and sea turtle watching, there’s something for everyone at any time of year. 

The name Edisto started with the Edistow tribe of native americans that were the first recorded to inhabit the island.  The island is now home to many rental beach houses, restaurants and shops, a serpentarium, museums, planations, Edisto Beach State Park, and Botany Bay Planation Wildlife Management Area.

View of the Salt Marsh near the Campground

Getting There

Edisto Island is about an hour southwest of Charleston.  It took us about an hour and forty minutes on Highway 17 because of traffic and two accidents, but it’s an hour conceivably.  The drive is beautiful in that classic old southern road lined with live oak and spanish moss–just gorgeous, but be careful on State Highway 174; there is a lip on both sides that will pull your tires and there is no shoulder.  The live oaks hang over the road, which could be a little scary for anyone hauling a rig or in a motorhome.

A Large Oak

Some Islandlife Highlights

There is the Edisto Beach Loggerhead Turtle Project that relies on volunteers to monitor and locate sea turtle nests.  Stay off any dunes marked as turtle nesting grounds and report any sea turtle you see to the appropriate number [look for posts in that area saying what numbers to call].  We’re excited to sign up for the night Loggerhead Sea Turtle Walks in the summer, held by the State Park.  Should be a fun time!

The Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society holds annual tours in October of the privately owned, hard to find planations that remain from the ‘sea island cotton’ boom back in the 1700 and 1800s.  These plantations aren’t visible from the road and aren’t open to the public other than during the tour.

The State Park

It takes a little bit of map gazing before you get the lay out of the park.  If you are a little lost, head to the Environment Education Center first.  The very helpful staff, who happen to wear uniforms very similiar to those of the national park rangers, will be there to answer your questions [9am to 4pm in the offseason].  The Education Center is full of nicely done exhibits [though some were out of working order], a touch tank, live sea creatures in tanks and a short little film about the ecologically important ACE basin.  The Education Center is a green building, and it’s also painted green, with each green feature numbered. 

There is a ton of camping available [91 sites, I believe], but I’m sure it fills fast!  You can have a marsh view, a sand dune view, a beach site, or be in some palmettos [by the way, some of the tallest in the state are found there!].

Hiking

Walking about the Trail

For a description of the trails, plus directions and camping reservation info, click Here.

My husband and I took all the trails, and although relatively small, there is plenty of walking to do and plenty to look at!  The shell midden called Spanish Mount, was neat to see, being 4000 years old and held up by the decking!  We saw at least three different types of woodpeckers, a hermit thrush, bluebirds, ibises and chickadees.  I’ve been on the lookout for anoles, but haven’t spotted any yet, though I did find some small skinks in the pine straw along the trails.  Once it warms up, I’m sure you’ll be able to spot more wildlife, including a few alligators! 

Whelks from the Midden

Two Overwintering Bluebirds

A Hermit Thrush

Two Fiddler Crabs, One Male, One Female

My husband took a nice video of the Fiddler crabs; I might try to get that on here soon.  It is interesting to watch the foraging difference between the male and female.  The female Fiddler is at an obvious advantage because she can pick through the sediment with both little claws.  The male, on the other hand [or claw], can’t do so because of the one enlarged claw that serves for defending territory and jousting. 

Shelling

Whelk on the Beach

Good heavens I have never seen so many shells in my life! What the stars are in the sky, the shells are on the beach, it seems.  It was heaven for my husband, who is a 5 year old shell stomper in disguise, and it was heaven for me, since finding a nice whelk that was over 5 inches was pretty simple there!  We found 4!  Plan your visit right after high tide for good shells, but there will always be shells there.  And if you could, throw back the live ones! It’s hard to stay off the beach if you don’t have any legs.  I’d love to know why there are indeed so many, but a little more research is required on my part.  I’ll let you know!

A Live Knobbed Whelk

Shell-covered Beach

For more information, visit the Edisto Chamber of Commerce website, full of usefull information that helped fill this blog!

Another great resource: www.edistoisland.com From Fishing to Reality to Weddings, the site offers lots of information!

Watching a Beautiful Sunset