Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

Testing My Volunteer Spirit

After my chat with the boy on the hillside, Paco and I continued north along the new section of the Swimming Deer Trail.

About 50 yards beyond the houses, the trail ends at a graded area that slopes down to one of the branches of Sandy Creek. In the wetlands, Sandy Creek has multiple channels.

Ahead was a long row of red marker flags. They stretched in a long curve across the graded area, over a branch of the creek, across a narrow sandbar, over another branch of the creek, up a hillside, and out of sight.

I studied the scene for several minutes, trying to picture the boardwalk following the curve of the flags. Then we turned around and headed back toward the car.

All was quiet when we passed behind the row of houses on the bluff. The boy was gone.

A long time later, about 10 minutes from the trailhead, I heard voices ahead on the trail. I got out Paco’s leash and hooked him up.

(The park requires dogs to be leashed at all times, but that’s a silly rule.)

Soon, four hikers came into view, chattering happily. The group consisted of two 30-something women, a 30-something man, and in the lead, a wiry older gentleman. It was Walt Cook.

I’ve encountered Walt four or five times over the years. We’ve met on local trails a time or two and chatted briefly. A few years ago, we spent a morning working together on a trail maintenance crew.

Walt is a pleasant, friendly fellow, and I always recognize him. But he never remembers me. Or Paco, for that matter.

Each time, when he introduces himself anew, I take no offense. I find it sort of amusing, even endearing. After all, Walt is busy, important, and 80-plus years old.

“Hello,” said Walt when the four hikers reached us. He smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Walt Cook.”

In his other hand was a bundle of red marker flags. I smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Rocky Smith. This is Paco.”

Paco, tail wagging, had assumed his self-taught, belly-to-the-ground position. One of the women cooed and petted him.

The second woman backed away slightly. While being scratched and petted, Paco looked up at the second woman with a Border Collie stare.

Paco has a very intense stare, but it’s benign. The woman didn’t know that.

Standing back as far as the narrow trail allowed, she observed, “Why do they always focus on the person who’s afraid of dogs?”

“Mr. Cook,” I said, “This trail is a whole lot longer than it used to be.”

Walt allowed as how that was true. He said they were on their way to the boardwalk site to place the final marker flags.

Wow, I thought, they’re hiking the trail instead of driving to the neighborhood on the bluff and walking 30 yards. I was impressed.

Walt spoke earnestly, but as usual, showed no sign of recognition. He took his turn petting Paco, but didn’t seem to remember him, either.

A few minutes later, Walt and his friends had continued north, and Paco and I were almost back to the car.

Both of us were tired. In the past, patrolling the Swimming Deer Trail required an out-and-back hike of six miles. From now on, the out-and-back is going to be almost nine miles.

Walt and the parks people are sorely testing my volunteer spirit.

Paco leads the way on the Swimming Deer Trail.

Read Full Post »

Not Enough Black

In my last post, I introduced Walt Cook, retired University of Georgia forestry professor, greenspace advocate, and trail-builder extraordinaire.

For decades, Walt has designed and built high-quality hiking trails throughout the region. Athens is Walt’s home, so trailwise, Athens gets a lot of his attention.

Last year, Sandy Creek Park was in the news because of talk about building a boardwalk across the wetlands where Sandy Creek flows into Lake Chapman. The project had been going nowhere because of the high cost.

Then an anonymous donor (anonymous to the public, but probably not to the insiders) offered to pay half the cost of building the boardwalk — half being about $160,000.

Being rational people, the mayor and the council moved quickly to accept the offer before the donor reconsidered.

However, the parks department people politely tried to slow the project down. They favored a boardwalk along the shore of the lake instead of inland through the wetlands.

The free money, however, was contingent on building a wetlands trail.

In a last feeble attempt, the parks people noted at a public hearing that extending the Swimming Deer Trail through the forest to the location of the boardwalk would cost $40,000.

Walt Cook, the trail-building man, now in his 80s, but sound as an oak, stood up. He announced that he had already marked the best route for the trail, and he offered to complete the construction at no cost.

The parks people gave up. The council approved a trail and boardwalk through the wetlands.

Late one morning about two weeks ago, Paco and I drove to Sandy Creek Park to do our monthly duty and patrol the Swimming Deer Trail. We parked at the trailhead, and for the next hour, proceeded up the trail. It was a weekday. We had the trail to ourselves.

Three miles out, when we reached the customary end of the trail, I could see that Walt and his crew had been busy. The trail no longer ends there, but continues down a long slope into a ravine, up the other side, and out of sight.

I wasn’t sure how far the new trail went or how long the hike would take us. But no way could I resist finding out.

The new stretch of trail, I discovered, not only continues all the way to the site of the future boardwalk, but except for blazing, is completely finished and ready for foot traffic.

The trail is level and dry, winding easily around the hillsides and staying 10 feet or so above the wetlands. The area is under a canopy of hardwoods. Several small streams flow down to the lake. Fingers of the lake reach inland here and there. Truly a beautiful setting.

Eventually, we came to an area I knew about, but had never seen: a small residential neighborhood deep in the woods that backs up to the park property.

The homes there were built years ago at the end of a remote rural road on a bluff above Sandy Creek. Nowadays, from their back porches along the bluff, the homeowners look down at park property and a new hiking trail.

In several back yards, shiny new NO TRESPASSING signs faced the trail. No one was in sight. Quietly, we continued past the houses.

Then from the hillside above me, a kid’s voice said, “Hey, mister, what kind of dog is that?”

I looked up to see a boy, about age 10, looking down at me. He was sitting cross-legged under a large tree in his back yard. He had the familiar accent of a local fella.

“Mostly Border Collie,” I answered. “He herds like a Border Collie.”

“He don’t look like no Border Collie.”

“I got him from Animal Control. He may be a mix.”

“He’s too white. Not enough black in his coat.”

“Well, Border Collies come in all patterns and colors,” I said. “Even red.”

“I never heard of no red Border Collie.”

I decided to change the subject. “You got a dog?”

“She’s in the house.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“We don’t know.”

“What’s her name?”

“Maggie. She’s old. Older’n me.”

“His name is Paco,” I said. “He’s getting old, too.”

The boy went silent. The conversation was over. Paco and I continued down Walt’s new trail.

More about the Swimming Deer Trail and Walt Cook in my next post.


Google Earth image of the wetlands above Lake Chapman.

Section of boardwalk on Cook’s Trail.

Paco (mostly white, mostly Border Collie) on the Swimming Deer Trail.


Read Full Post »

An Obsession

A couple of years ago, I signed up as a trail maintenance volunteer for the parks department in Athens.

I’m in charge of two trails, the Screech Owl and the Swimming Deer. My job is to walk them once a month, trim back the undergrowth, remove fallen branches, and report what I can’t handle, such as downed trees that require a chainsaw.

I walk those trails anyway as a civilian, so I might as well be useful.

The parks department (they call it Leisure Services) operates about 20 parks and rec facilities around Athens. The largest of them, Sandy Creek Park, is 750-plus wooded acres surrounding a 280-acre lake.

The Swimming Deer Trail meanders three miles along the west bank of the lake.

Sandy Creek Park offers the amenities you would expect: fishing, boating, swimming, camping, picnicking. It has basketball and tennis courts, disc golf, and a dog park.

But to me, the real attraction is the beautiful lake and the sprawling oak and pine forest around it. The lake is great for paddling. The forest has miles of beautiful trails, most of it with views of the lake.

Now, it’s a fact that some trails are better than others, and the trails at Sandy Creek Park are of notable high quality. They are exceptionally well-designed and well-constructed, and they blend in nicely. Very scenic and unobtrusive.

The reason for that is a retired University of Georgia forestry professor named Walt Cook.

Walt is a nationally-known trail-builder. Trails are his thing. For decades — in Athens, in Georgia, and around the Southeast — he has been a go-to guy for advice and assistance with new trails, especially trails through sensitive environments.

Governments and organizations know that a Walt Cook trail means high quality and low maintenance, maximum scenery and minimum erosion.

Walt’s trail-building obsession grew out of a long commitment to sustainable forests and environmental protection.

After Sandy Creek Park was built, Walt and some friends came up with the idea of creating an environmental education center in Athens. They found a site on Sandy Creek, five miles downstream from Sandy Creek Park, secured the funding, and made the necessary deals. Sandy Creek Nature Center opened in 1973.

Walt laid out and helped to build the network of trails at the Nature Center. He also built a trail along Sandy Creek that links the park and the nature center. Cook’s Trail is its name.

Allow me to toss out a nature factoid here: the State of Georgia has no natural lakes. None. All the lakes in Georgia are man-made.

Lake Chapman at Sandy Creek Park exists because a dam was built on Sandy Creek.

Like all man-made lakes, Lake Chapman has a wetland at the upstream end — the transition zone between creek and lake. There, the water backs up, spreads out, and makes the land boggy and yucky.

For years, the parks people had wanted to extend the Swimming Deer Trail around the top of Lake Chapman and link it with trails on the east bank, thus creating one continuous loop around the lake.

But that pesky zone of wetlands frustrated them. A trail across the Lake Chapman wetlands would require long stretches of elevated boardwalk. The cost was too prohibitive.

Then last year, an anonymous donor stepped forward and offered to pay half the cost of the boardwalk.

Free money. That got the immediate attention of the mayor, the council, and the parks people.

More about wetlands and trails in my next post.

Lake Chapman at Sandy Creek Park.

Upstream end of Lake Chapman.

Walt Cook at work on the Benton McKaye Trail in the North Georgia mountains.


Read Full Post »

Every few weeks, I have a reason to drive down to the Mall of Georgia. The mall is about 25 miles south of Jefferson, on the northern edge of Metro Atlanta in Gwinnett County.

I have a long history with Gwinnett, dating back to the 1950s. My grandparents lived there. When I was in college, my parents lived there. My kids grew up there.

But eventually, what was once a pleasant, peaceful place got sold out to the developers in a spectacular way. Gwinnett quickly became just another appalling suburban nightmare.

Home to 600,000 souls, Gwinnett is the second most populous county in Georgia, behind Fulton County, which makes up most of Atlanta.

Gwinnett got to be what it is by systematically developing every possible acre, until it became an endless sea of residential subdivisions, apartment complexes, office complexes, and commercial establishments of every conceivable type.

Today, the traffic congestion and overcrowding in Gwinnett are horrific. You learn the acceptable secondary routes and the times of day to avoid certain places, or else. If possible, I go there only on weekends.

Ironically, in spite of being a vast expanse of pavement, the county has an award-winning parks and recreation program. Although not much remains in the way of undeveloped land, Gwinnett has tried hard (out of shame, perhaps) to work with the few narrow corridors of green that still exist.

The county has created a series of paved greenways for walking and biking. They’ve also built quite a few pocket parks around the county — although, unfortunately, they have a habit of constructing ball fields there, which necessitates the removal of more trees.

For the most part, the greenway corridors owe their existence to topography, not the husbandry of resources. Most of the corridors follow winding, steep-sided creeks; it was land that escaped development because it was not economical to exploit.

Which brings me back to the subject of driving down to the Mall of Georgia. I went there last Sunday to take a walk, for the first time, along the Ivy Creek Greenway.

I wrote about Ivy Creek back in 2009. You can read that post here.

The official name of the mall is The Mall of Georgia at Mill Creek — so named because a mill once operated at a small dam on Ivy Creek.

Today, Ivy Creek still manages to flow, largely unseen, around the southern end of the mall. It is there that the dam and the site of the mill are located, inside one of the looping entrance ramps to Interstate 85.

Several years ago, Gwinnett County built a greenway along Ivy Creek that allows access to, among other places, the dam and the site of the old mill. Although the spot is encircled by expressway ramps, the ramps sit atop immense concrete pilings. The greenway goes under them.

If you can tolerate the steady drone of traffic, and if seeing the tops of hotels, apartments, and various mall structures on the horizon is acceptable, then a stroll down the Ivy Creek Greenway isn’t so bad.

Sunday was calm and sunny and 70 degrees. Quietly and surreptitiously, I left my car in the parking lot of a nearby Marriott, and I followed a stairway of 50-plus concrete steps down, down, down to the greenway.

At the bottom of the steps, a young couple and three little kids were gearing up for a family bike ride. The man was strapping on helmets. The woman was setting the timer of her camera, preparing to place it on a rock and take a group photo.

“Do you want me to do that?” I asked.

She looked relieved, probably was hoping I would make the offer. “Would you mind? Thank you so much!”

With a tone of sarcasm, she added, too softly for the others to hear, “We can’t miss an opportunity to document everything we do.”

“Believe me,” I said, “Someday, you’ll be glad you have the photo.”

She shrugged, handed me the camera, and joined the group. They settled into position and turned on the smiles. All five wore matching green. All five bicycles were the same metallic brown. I took the photo, handed back and camera, and was on my way.

I walked east along the greenway, following the creek upstream. Although the day was warm, the leaves had fallen long ago, providing good views of the creek and the rocky hillside beyond.

No one was around when I came to the site of the old mill. I scampered down the bank to get a better look at the dam and the giant waterwheel rusting in the sand. I tried to imagine how the spot looked when the mill was in operation.

I continued walking east on the greenway, passing under I-85. I thought the noise would be overpowering, but it was only a distant rumble.

After about half a mile, the pavement of the greenway ended at a large, open gate. On the right was Ivy Creek. On the left, high up, was the back wall of a Mattress Factory. A gravel road continued east, but it was muddy. I decided to turn back.

I followed the greenway west, past the dam, past the Marriott, and past a couple of apartment complexes overlooking the numerous shoals on the creek. Plenty of walkers and bikers were out.

Beyond the apartments, I came to a long, soaring foot bridge that crosses the creek. On the other side, the greenway forks.

A runner came by, and I asked him if the main greenway went left or right. “Left goes to a dead end at the amphitheater,” he said, running in place. “The greenway goes right.” Then he was off again.

The greenway went uphill, under the hardwood canopy and away from the creek. When I reached the top of the hill, I saw two young girls, in their late teens or early 20s, walking together about 40 yards ahead. No one else was around. They were not yet aware of my presence.

They stopped next to a small bench. One of the girls sat down, and the other continued on. I could see that a short distance ahead, the greenway crossed a paved road; the second girl had gone to check it out.

When I got to within 10 yards of the girl on the bench, she turned in my direction. She looked startled, then quickly lowered her head and folded her hands in her lap.

She held that submissive posture as I reached the bench. “Hi!” I said cheerily.

She didn’t look up, didn’t move.

“It’s a beautiful day to be out,” I added hopefully.

No response.

“Okay. Well, have a nice day,” I said. I continued down the greenway, puzzled by her behavior.

Up ahead, the second girl was coming in my direction. When we passed, I smiled and said hello.

She looked up and smiled, but said nothing.

Well, I thought, at least she made eye contact. What an odd pair. Odd and rude.

A few moments later, where the greenway crossed the paved road, I turned and looked back toward the bench.

The two girls stood there, facing each other, communicating energetically.

In sign language.

The old waterwheel below the dam on Ivy Creek.

View of the southern edge of the Mall of Georgia. The dam can be seen to the left of the red X. The greenway passes below the dam.

Read Full Post »

The Two Ps

One of my favorite hiking spots these days is Thompson Mills Forest in Braselton, a 330-acre preserve owned by the University of Georgia School of Forestry. It’s a quiet, scenic spot with several miles of well-maintained trails, and it’s only 10 miles from home.

It’s also the official State of Georgia Arboretum. As such, a lot of work goes on there to cultivate and display plants native to Georgia. When the tract was deeded to UGA in 1980, 80 native species were identified there. Since then, another 100 have been added.

I see evidence of ongoing work all the time, but strangely, I never see the work being conducted.

For that matter, I never see anyone there at all.

I mean that quite literally. In the two years I’ve been hiking the trails there, probably 20 or so visits in all, I’ve run across zero other hikers.

And in all that time, the only Arboretum employee I encountered was a man who stopped me several months ago to inform me that dogs are no longer allowed on the trails.

The issue was pertinent at the time because Paco was with me.

It seems they had an incident of some kind, and instead of taking it out on the one offender, the University summarily banned all dogs from the property.

Jerks. And I’m not referring to the dogs.

I mention the solitude of Thompson Mills Forest and its wonderful lack of people (don’t get me started on the dogs) because last week, I encountered another human being there — again, an employee.

It happened half a mile off-trail in the middle of the woods.

The thing is, I know the trail system there very well, so I have taken to setting out in this direction or that through the woods, bushwhacking my way along, exploring new territory.

It isn’t difficult. The terrain is dry, open hardwood forest. 330 acres is a fairly limited area, so you can’t get lost. The park boundary is never far away.

I’ve done the bushwhacking thing in other places, and most of the time, I mark the routes as I go.

Not so in the Arboretum. I may kick aside some deadfall to clear the path, but I don’t flag or blaze the route. The University apparently judges offenders harshly, and I don’t want to do time in the Braselton jail.

Anyway, I drove over to the Arboretum last week, followed one of the formal trails to its northernmost point, and went off-trail from there. I set out to the north, following the west bank of a small creek through a pretty little valley.

Half an hour later, I came to the park’s north boundary. Ahead, I could see private homes through the trees. I turned around and began to retrace my steps.

This is the time of year when the undergrowth is dying back, and a thick carpet of leaves is on the ground. I was making a loud, unavoidable racket as I walked along.

But when I paused briefly to trim a branch, I could still hear the crunch-crunch of footsteps through the dry leaves.

I looked up and saw a young man, 30 feet away, walking in my direction. After all that solitude, it was rather shocking.

“Hi there,” I called out. He nodded somewhat curtly.

He was a 30-ish fellow wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and a baseball cap. He wore no badge or I.D., but had an oversized radio on his belt.

“I’m surprised to run across anybody out here,” I said.

“You out hikin’?” he asked.

I told him I had parked at the main entrance and was just wandering around, enjoying the day. I asked if he worked for the University. He said he did.

“What brings you out here?” I inquired.

He smiled for the first time. “The two Ps,” he said. “Poachers and pot farmers.”

He explained that in the fall, leading up to hunting season, the staff has to be especially vigilant for poachers. To avoid competition, poachers do their deer hunting before the season starts.

That was a sobering concept. I had a sudden flash of being accidentally gunned down in the woods, a la Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot while bird hunting.

I read recently that Cheney never apologized to Whittington for shooting him. But I digress.

“And then there’s the pot farmers,” the University man continued.

“Last year, the cops raided one of those houses that back up to the Forest, and they arrested six Mexicans. Turned out, the Mexicans were growin’ marijuana on Forest property.”

Disturbing a group of hard-working pot farmers. Another sobering concept for a solo hiker.

“I take it you’re not in the weed business,” he said.

I said, no, I wasn’t. Nor was I engaged in poaching or any other illegal activity.

“Unless it’s illegal to be wandering around off-trail,” I said.

“No,” he said, “You’re free to wander wherever you like. But I’d be careful, just the same.”

We said our goodbyes. He continued north into the woods, on the lookout for signs of the two Ps, and I headed south, back toward the trailhead.

He was right. Being out in the woods is never completely safe. It pays to be vigilant and cautious.

Too bad I can’t take Paco along for protection.


Read Full Post »

Trail Tales

The Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area is just 30 minutes north of Jefferson, and it features several nice trails that I hike regularly. The trails there are clean and well-maintained, and the scenery is terrific.

Furthermore, except during hunting season, when rational people don’t go anywhere near the place, I’m usually alone on the trail. I rarely encounter another hiker, or a biker or an equestrian, all day. I like that a lot.

One of my regular walks in the WMA is the Lake Russell Trail, a 5-mile loop that circumnavigates the 100-acre lake.

View along the Lake Russell Trail.

For years, hiking that trail was a sweet-and-sour experience. Half of the loop hugs the shoreline of the lake, giving you beautiful panoramas along the way; but the other half largely follows a gravel service road and routes you through the campground areas. You even lose sight of the lake.

Last year, having endured the unpleasant half for years, I took action.

First, I blazed a trail on the north side of the lake that connects the Lake Russell Trail to an abandoned dirt road that doubles back to the trailhead. That’s option one.

Second, I blazed a trail on the south side of the lake that bypasses the service road and the campground areas altogether. It took a while to clear a useable route, but it was worth the effort.

Most of my hikes on the Lake Russell Trail (the formal parts, anyway) have been uneventful. But two tales are worth telling…

Mother Goose

Canada geese are common around North Georgia because of their migration route. The local lakes are where you find these birds, especially in the spring.

One day in May back in the mid-90s, my dog Kelly and I were hiking the Lake Russell Trail. We were proceeding along the north shoreline, the scenic section where the footpath remains at lake level, mere feet from the water.

Soon, we came to a spot where the trail makes a hairpin loop, following the outline of a small inlet. On the opposite shore of the inlet, about 30 yards across from us, a Canada goose sat in the middle of the trail.

The three of us saw each other immediately. Kelly’s ears perked up. The goose’s neck went rigid. I did a double-take.

As we continued down the trail on our side of the inlet, Kelly and I were moving away from the goose. The goose relaxed.

But after we made the turn at the top of the hairpin, we were drawing closer. The goose got nervous again.

Suddenly, a second goose paddled into view on the lake, honking and flapping furiously. The father had arrived to protect his nesting mate.

I finally could see evidence of the nest beneath her — grass and feathers and other material.

Kelly and I stopped about 10 yards from the mother goose, who was frightened, but unwilling to flee and abandon the nest.

I sat down on the trail. Kelly came over and sat next to me. The two of us looked at the bird, and the bird looked back. The father goose continued to honk at us from the water.

The trail at that point on the lakeshore is on a steep slope. The footpath is only about three feet wide. My inclination was to veer off-trail and leave the poor goose in peace, but that wasn’t possible.

I stood up, as did Kelly, waiting to follow my lead. I had no idea what that would be.

Our movement made the goose more restless. She fidgeted in place, clearly fighting the urge to fly away and save herself.

“Goose,” I said out loud, “We don’t want to hurt you, but why in hell did you build your nest on the trail?”

The goose tucked her head under one wing and lay perfectly still. The second goose, meanwhile, was still honking at us.

Out of curiosity, Kelly took a tentative step toward the goose, nose quivering. She meant no harm, but the goose didn’t know that.

“Kelly, no,” I said quietly. Kelly stopped and sat down, watching the drama with interest.

Holding up my hand for Kelly to stay, I took a few slow, easy steps toward the nesting bird.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, we can creep past her while her head is covered and she thinks she’s hidden.


My proximity finally became too much for the goose. In a panic, she erupted from the nest and flew away, honking in fear.

Quickly, the two geese joined forces and paddled around just offshore, honking excitedly.

The nest she abandoned contained three eggs. Kelly sniffed at them, then turned and trotted onward.

Knowing I couldn’t leave the nest in the middle of a hiking trail, I scooped it up and followed Kelly. As we departed, the geese stopped honking.

Around the corner, the trail was wider. I selected a spot and carefully placed the nest on the ground.

Whether the geese would find it, I didn’t know. Whether they would abandon it because of the human smell, I didn’t know.

To this day, I’m still puzzled. Why in the world did she build her nest in the middle of the trail? Inexperience?

The Storyteller

Several weeks ago, Paco and I set forth down the same trail, in the same direction. At about the same location, we came around a bend and saw a small metal fishing boat floating near the shore with two men aboard.

This happens all the time. The WMA is frequented by more fishermen than hikers. On most days, a dozen small boats dot the lake.

My usual habit is to raise a hand in greeting, or tug the bill of my cap, which is sort of an unspoken howdy in these parts.

This is done in silence. Fisherman get irritated if you speak. They think you are spooking the fish.

So, as Paco and I passed near them on the trail, I smiled and waved a friendly wave.

“Howdy, young man,” said one of the men.

“Good morning,” I said back.

The man who spoke was about my age, deeply tanned, and slight of build. He wore a John Deere cap and a long-sleeved shirt, which usually is a good idea in the hot sun, except that his shirt was dark blue.

The man had uttered only one phrase, but I could tell that his voice was rich and strong. Somewhere between a Johnny Cash and a Willy Nelson.

“You ever see traces of bear in these woods?” he inquired.

That confirmed it. The words flowed smoothly, easily, resonantly. His voice was his gift, and he knew it and relished using it.

“No,” I replied. “I didn’t know bears wandered this far south.”

“Oh, yeah,” said the man. “I seen their scat, and seen where they been scratchin’ on the tree bark, and where they been feedin’ — seen it many times.”

The other occupant of the boat was a younger, larger man wearing an international orange cap and a skin-tight red tee shirt that accentuated every ounce of his ample midsection.

He looked up, made eye contact with me, and shook his head slowly side to side, as if to say, here he goes again, and went back to fishing.

“Bears is smart animals,” the older man continued. “Smarter than some people I know. They’re mean, too.

“A bear is crafty, you see. He’ll sneak up on a man like you, alone, taking a walk in the woods.

“And no offense, but that dog of yours don’t look like no fightin’ dog. He’d probably be gone real quick and leave you to deal with the bear.”

Maybe Paco would turn tail, maybe not. I didn’t say anything.

The younger man looked at me again and rolled his eyes. I smiled slightly.

“I wouldn’t be too quick to doubt,” the older man admonished. “It was here at this very lake, when I was younger than Randy here, that a male black bear snatched me bald.”

Randy turned toward his boat mate. “Daddy, I’ve heard you tell a lot of stories, but I ain’t heard that one.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Daddy. “We was at the campground over by the beach — Mama and Papa and us kids. In the dead of night, that bear snuck into my tent.

“Well, I woke up, and there he stood, lookin’ at me — eyes bright, a growl rumblin’ low in his throat, the drool drippin’ off his fangs.

“I was trapped. Helpless. I pulled the blanket over my head and waited. I figured I was gone to glory.

“That bear, he swiped one big claw across the top of my head — pphhhhtt — and left me like this.”

He removed his John Deere cap and tilted his head forward. He was as bald as an egg.

“Jesus, Daddy,” said Randy with a chuckle.

“That was a terrible thing to happen,” I said, “Me, I lost my hair the old-fashioned way.” I took off my cap to illustrate.

“Yessir, the physical scars, they healed,” he said. “But that bear left emotional scars that’s lasted a lifetime. A lifetime.”

He paused for dramatic effect and put his cap back on.

“So my advice to you, young man, is to be cautious and alert out there,” he said. “Them bears is sneaky and mean, and bein’ bald already won’t save your hide.”

“I appreciate the advice,” I told him. “I will be bear aware and bear alert.

The two men nodded and went back to fishing. Paco and I resumed our hike.

Read Full Post »

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, located in Athens along the Middle Oconee River, is a terrific place.

The Garden features a variety of well-tended public display gardens — flowers, herbs, ground cover, conifers, and so on — and it’s a research facility for UGA and other universities. It also has a soaring tropical conservatory. A very neat facility.

The Botanical Garden is a little over 300 acres big, and about five miles of nature trails meander through it.

Most of the trails are short loops close to the visitor center. I’ve always considered them sissy trails, mainly used by school kids and old people. Older then me, even.

The one trail at the Garden worthy of the name is the White Trail, a 3-mile loop that takes a pretty good tour of the 300 acres.

Although the White Trail is not a sissy trail — it’s long enough to get your attention and fairly steep in spots — I always tended to underestimate it.

Not any more. Not after my misadventures there one Sunday last month.

My day began on a rather sour note. I parked at a point where a connector trail leads down to the river, a convenient place to pick up the White Trail. As soon as I started down the connector, I saw two college-age girls coming in my direction.

They were walking at a leisurely pace and chattering happily — until they saw me. Immediately, the conversation ended. They speeded up, walking side by side in silence, heads down, gazes locked on the ground in front of them, until they got past me.

If I were better at thinking on my feet, I would have pointedly said hello, or asked for directions to watch them squirm. Or spat an obscenity.

Instead, I just shook my head in dismay and kept going.

When I got to the river, it was 10:00 AM and already hot. Oppressively hot. We’ve had that kind of summer.

But the trails are 100 percent beneath the forest canopy, and the day was otherwise pleasant. I wiped my face with a bandana and turned north along the river bank.

For the first half mile, the trail proceeds north along the river. The footpath there is only about a yard wide, and the vegetation is dense.

Privet and other fast-growing plants line the bank. The trail would quickly disappear if it were not maintained regularly. As it is, the undergrowth is on both sides and above you, creating a walk-through tunnel.

Then I came to a spot where a small tree was down across the trail. The tree was green, so probably had been uprooted in wet weather. Its branches, thick with leaves, completely blocked the trail. Going around it was not possible.

I had no tools with me, but I managed to break off a few strategic branches and ease myself through the barrier.

As I did, my left wrist scraped on a broken branch. I looked down and saw a quarter-size bruise.

Damn. I already had a quarter-size bruise there. I earned it a week earlier while moving landscape timbers.

A word to you younger people about bruises. As you get older, you become much more susceptible to bruising because your skin is thinner. And, in your mounting geezerhood, you’re probably clumsier, too. The slightest thump is likely to leave a mark. Which won’t go away for a month.

You just wait. You’ll see.

Anyway, there I was, with two large, ugly bruises. I was perspiring heavier than ever, but was pleased to be past the fallen tree. I continued up the trail.

Less than 50 yards later, I came across a second fallen tree.

This one blocked the trail, too, but below it was a crawl space about three feet high. I dropped down on all fours and clambered under it.

In mid clamber, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. A thorn got me.

On the other side, I stood up and looked at my knee. A few drops of blood were welling up and trickling down my shin. Not wanting to stain my bandana, I broke off a piece of privet and used the leaves to mop away the blood.

The bleeding stopped, and I continued on.

Another 50 yards down the trail, I came to a third fallen tree. This one was huge, and the trail appeared to be completely blocked. It looked hopeless.

Nobody wants to give up and go back 10 minutes into a hike. I studied the tree closely to see if somehow I could get past it.

There was, indeed, a possibility. The tree was so large that some of its branches held the trunk up off the trail at an angle. The leafy smaller branches made the barrier look more impenetrable than it really was.

Again, I set about breaking off branches. It took a while, but I managed to create a small opening. I turned sideways and squeezed through the barrier.

In mid squeeze, my face full of leaves, I felt a sharp pain in my left forearm.

On the other side, I was shocked to see blood, lots of it, running down my forearm. Apparently, another broken branch got me. But this time, it was a money shot. The phrase, “Like a stuck pig” popped into my mind.

I wiped the stream of blood away with a forefinger, then pressed the finger onto the wound to stop the bleeding.

It didn’t work. I broke off more privet, wiped the new blood away, and continued pressing on the wound. I continued walking briefly, but decided to stop. Exertion was not a good idea at that point.

Every 10 or 15 seconds, I checked the wound, but the blood kept coming. For several minutes, I repeated the process — break off privet, wipe away blood, apply pressure. I held my arm in the air, wondering if I had a situation here.

In spite of all the bleeding, the cut in my forearm was only the size of a pea. It even had a convenient flap of skin that would become a nice lid when the bleeding stopped.

And really, I’ve been punctured like that on the trail a few times in the past. The bleeding had always stopped. So far, anyway.

As long as I pressed on the wound, the flow of blood was stopped. Sooner or later it would coagulate. I stood in the trail holding my arm aloft, wondering what I would say if someone came down the trail.

Finally, the bleeding stopped. My arm looked awful — smeared with dried blood, flecked with pieces of privet, sporting a fresh wound that looked ready to gush forth at any moment. But the emergency was over, and I was greatly relieved.

I resumed the hike. I was half a mile into a three-mile loop.

Somewhere near the halfway point, the White Trail emerges from the forest and crosses a powerline right-of-way. Because the right-of-way is kept free of trees, the undergrowth is free to go crazy.

The power company doesn’t care what grows there, as long as the lines aren’t affected. The Garden people probably do trail maintenance twice a year, tops.

In that particular spot, in this particular summer, the undergrowth that went craziest at populating the easement was blackberries.

Blackberry plants are ubiquitous in the South, and they grow quickly into dense thickets. Their two key features: delicious fruit and very sharp thorns.

The trail across the right-of-way was not impassable, but it was tricky and unpleasant. I crossed slowly and carefully, trying to avoid the long, arching, prickly blackberry stems.

A good idea in that kind of situation is to carry a walking stick. You can use it to whack the stems, which are delicate and collapse easily, thus clearing the path.

But I didn’t have a walking stick. I opted for Plan B, which is to (1) place your foot at the base of the shoot that is in your way and (2) stomp down while pushing it away from the trail.

The procedure worked fine a few times, but soon, the odds caught up with me. During a stomp, I felt a sharp sting near the sock line of my right leg.

I looked down, and I had another gusher. A sticker had punched cleanly into a blood vessel. Blood was streaming out and quickly soaking the top of my sock.

My doctor warned me about this. The veins in my legs are not varicose, but they’re prominent. Knowing that I’m a frequent hiker, she recommends long pants on the trail. I didn’t listen.

Quickly, I pushed the top of my sock down and applied pressure to my latest wound. With the other hand, I grabbed a handful of sticker-free greenery and used it to swab away some of the blood.

But the flow wouldn’t stop. Three or four times, I applied pressure for 30 seconds, then checked the wound, only to see blood pouring out again.

Part of the problem was the location of the wound — low on my shin. I needed to find a place where I could sit down and elevate my leg. I let go of the wound, stood up, and hastened a few yards ahead to a wider spot in the trail, leaving droplets of blood behind me on the dry clay.

I sat down in the middle of the trail, elevated my leg on the higher bank, applied pressure to the wound, and snatched up another handful of greenery to mop up blood.

As I sat there mopping, I wondered again how this scene would look to a passerby. I assumed the person would stop. I wasn’t sure if I would say, “No problem, I’m fine” or “Help!”

Finally — finally — the bleeding stopped. For the second time, I was mightily relieved and anxious to get going. At this rate, I wouldn’t finish the hike until sundown.

I was about to stand up — carefully, so as not to jostle my leg too much — when a runner, a kid in his late teens, came into view.

He was quite surprised to see me sprawled across the trail with my leg propped up.

“Sir! Are you all right? What happened?” he said in alarm as he loomed over me.

“I’m okay,” I said. “The blackberry stickers got me. My leg was bleeding pretty bad, but it stopped finally.” I pointed to the spot on my leg.

“Are you on a blood thinner?” he asked.

“No, nothing like that,” I said. “The sticker just got me in the wrong place.”

He helped me to my feet. We both studied my leg, waiting to see if the bleeding had truly stopped. It had.

“Do you feel okay?” he asked. “I can go for help, or I can walk with you.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m fine,” I said. “You can get on with your run.”

“Well, I’m running to the end of the trail and then coming back this way. I’ll check on you in about 20 minutes.”

I thanked him, and he proceeded down the trail, and I set out behind him.

Fortunately, I received no more wounds that day. And the second half of the trail is higher, dryer, and cooler then the first, which was a nice change.

One of the features of the White Trail is the remains of an old homestead, located about half a mile from the end, 20 yards off-trail.

Hikers have worn a side trail to the old place, and I usually stop for a visit. Not much is there. Just a brick chimney and a scattering of rotted wood and old metal.

While I was off the trail at the homestead, I caught a glimpse of my runner friend passing by on the main trail. As promised, he was headed back, expecting to encounter me along the way

“Hey!” I shouted, but he didn’t hear me.

That’s great, I thought. He’ll probably think I was delirious from loss of blood, and I crawled off into the undergrowth and died. But there was nothing I can do about it.

A short time later, I arrived back at my car. I tossed my bandana, cap, and water bottle onto the front seat and got behind the wheel.

As I was backing out, my friend the runner emerged from the connector trail that goes down to the river. He trotted over to the car.

“Well, here you are,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re okay. I was afraid you crawled off into the undergrowth and died.”

The Tropical Conservatory and the International Garden.

The Middle Oconee River.

Rubus fruticosus, the common blackberry.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »