Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is an awe-inspiring slot canyon located on Navajo land just outside the city of Page in northeast Arizona. The canyon was formed by erosion — flood waters cutting down through the Navajo Sandstone, one monsoon season after another. The process is ongoing.

Antelope Canyon is not a “grand” type of canyon, but a narrow defile that at times can be claustrophobic. Often, you can reach out and touch both walls with your hands, and you may need to turn sideways to get through.

Meanwhile, way, way up above your head, the sky is occasionally visible.

Photographers and tourists adore Antelope Canyon for its spectacular colors and shapes. The Navajo Nation adores the visitors and no doubt takes in a goodly sum from entrance fees and guided tours.

Actually, there are two Antelope Canyons — upper and lower. The upper canyon is a short distance away via four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the canyon floor is more or less flat. Most tourists sign up for that tour.

Lower Antelope Canyon is steeper, narrower, and a bit more challenging. It begins within sight of the parking lot.

I saw both canyons for the first time about 10 years ago. The experience was thrilling, but my photos were lacking. It isn’t an easy place to photograph.

So last month, when I scheduled a two-week trip to Arizona, I put a return trip to the canyon on my itinerary.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Ten years ago, I paid the entrance fee and ventured down into Lower Antelope Canyon alone. But nowadays, under the current rules, casual visitors must have a guide. I was turned over to a friendly, 30-ish young man names Victor.

While Victor was getting ready, the dude who takes the money motioned me over.

“Look,” he said, “These guides are experts on photographing Antelope Canyon — real experts.

“They’ve seen every model of every brand of camera. They know which settings to use in the different seasons and lighting conditions.

“If you’re cooperative and pleasant, Victor will ask to see your camera. Give it to him. Some people don’t want anyone messing with their gear, but trust him. He knows what he’s doing.”

I gave the dude a thumbs up and thanked him. Victor soon appeared, and the two of us set off toward the entrance to the canyon.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon. The day was overcast. I didn't know what that would do to my photography.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon. The day was overcast. I didn’t know what that would do to my photography.

Descending into the canyon. In the old days, they used rope ladders.

Descending into the canyon. In the old days, they used rope ladders.

Victor was an affable sort, and we got along well. I snapped a few photos. In the viewfinder, they looked… okay. But clearly, the camera wasn’t capturing the gorgeous signature orange of the sandstone.

But then, I was using a new camera, a modest Canon PowerShot SX260, purchased only days before the trip. The thing had capabilities I knew nothing about. I wasn’t able to drift very far from auto mode.

This shot is typical of what I was getting:


Then, Victor spoke up.

“Rocky, can I take a look at your camera?”

Like a world champion manipulating a Rubik’s Cube, Victor quickly drilled down into the menus of my Canon. Twenty seconds later, he handed it back.

“Try this,” he said casually.

I looked at the settings. The camera was set in the “underwater” shooting mode.

What the –?

Oh, well, I thought. Might as well see what happens. I turned and took this photo.



Babbling and ooh-aahing happily, I commenced to taking shots in every direction.




The photo fest went on for another hour. I went home with a solid bunch of photos that, even though taken with a pocket-size Canon, are vastly superior to those I took on my first trip with a big honking Nikon SLR. (May the Nikon gods forgive me.)

And no question, I owe it all to Victor.

They say the photography in Antelope Canyon is best in the summer months. Between March and October, beams of direct sunlight reach down to the canyon floor in some spots. That gets the shutterbugs salivating.

You should see the place. I recommend it highly. And please, ask for Victor.

Victor leads the way.

Victor leads the way.

Read Full Post »

In my last post, I wrote about my trip to Crystal River, a little town on the Gulf coast of Florida where large herds of manatees spend the winter.

Crystal River is on King’s Bay, which is fed by a series of freshwater springs bubbling up at a constant 72 degrees. In winter, the manatees gather there because the spring water is warmer than the Gulf.

In Part 1, I described a day of snorkeling at Three Sisters Springs. This post is about Day Two, when I went back to the springs in a kayak.

I went back to the same spot to compare the below-water and above-water experiences. I also wanted to take more photos. The day before, I had used a small underwater film camera, and I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the pictures.

Kayaks rentals are everywhere in Crystal River. I found an outfitter on the south side of town that has a dock in its back yard. From there, it was a short, easy paddle through the residential canals to Three Sisters Springs.

The weather was perfect: sunny, calm, 75 degrees. I arrived to the same scene as the day before: a cluster of tour boats, a swarm of swimmers and kayakers, and a small herd of manatees, the latter staying just out of reach in the roped-off safe zone.

When I planned a day of kayaking, I intended to bring along a swim mask and fins, so I could stop and get in the water when the spirit moved me.

But it wasn’t to be. Local regulations don’t allow kayakers to tie off to a tree or the shoreline. In other words, most of your swimming would be in pursuit of your own kayak.

That was the bad news. The good news: sitting atop a kayak is an excellent vantage point from which to watch the manatees. For the next several hours, that’s what I did.

Initially, I stayed close to the safe zone, watching manatees come and go. I also had a good view as the swimmers and kayakers interacted with them. Seeing the animals from a kayak isn’t as dramatic as seeing them underwater, but the view still is surprisingly good.

Eventually, it was time to paddle into the spectacular lagoon that is the source of the Three Sisters Springs.

The mouth to the lagoon is protected by iron pilings that prevent boats larger than kayaks from entering. That seems unnecessary, considering that the entrance is already plenty narrow and restrictive.

On the other hand, it would only take one person with an outboard motor, fueled by too many beers, to wreak havoc in the lagoon and demonstrate that the pilings are needed. Maybe it already happened.

By any measure, the lagoon is a stunning place — beautiful and pristine. I could have floated there all day, grooving on the peace and serenity.

FYI, the lagoon at Three Sisters Springs is spectacular not only because of the water, but also because of the land around it: a vacant 58-acre tract in the heart of Crystal River.

For years, that tract was in private hands, always at risk of development. It escaped the bulldozers because its owners, who wanted to sell the property, preferred that it be preserved in its natural state, not developed as homes or apartments.

In 2010, Citrus County and the City of Crystal River reached an agreement with the owners and purchased the property. It is now protected as a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The tract will open to the public soon. A boardwalk already has been built around the lagoon.

In the end, I drifted around the lagoon and listened to the silence for about half an hour. Only occasionally was I interrupted by other kayakers or swimmers.

Later, when I emerged from the lagoon, I decided to paddle west toward the open bay, to see what I could see. The day was still sunny and calm, the temp still under 80 degrees.

Several times, I paused to watch groups of snorkelers or kayakers clustered around a manatee, or a mother and baby, or a small group en route to somewhere else.

You have to sympathize with the poor beasts. Under ordinary conditions, they are minding their own business, either eating, sleeping, or migrating.

Then, for reasons they can’t fathom, their space is invaded by humans in wetsuits, legs flailing, or by oblong pieces of colored plastic, floating on the surface and following them as if by magnetic attraction.

The local outfitters preach to the tourists diligently about the rules of manatee encounters. They counsel us to keep our distance, move slowly, and avoid hassling the creatures in any way.

But in practice, some people get excited and over-eager. They pursue the manatees too closely or block their passage. I’m sure the manatees find these people as irritating as the rest of us do.

But fortunately, most of the tourists are restrained and respectful. Consider the tour boat full of young teen boys that I came across.

The group consisted of about a dozen boys and two tour guides, a man on the boat and a woman in the water. The boat had paused at the mouth of a residential canal that, at the time, was a manatee safe zone.

(The authorities usually don’t create a safe zone and wait for the manatees to find it. They identify places where the manatees congregate and rope them off.)

The canal being a safe zone, manatees were steadily arriving and departing, and the boat had dropped anchor where the action was.

I paddled up to the boat slowly. Several of the boys were in the water. The rest were leaning over the side, stroking the back of a lone manatee.

“Easy does it,” the male tour guide told the boys in a calm voice. “This one is young and curious. Don’t spook him.”

The boys on the boat jockeyed for position, but stayed quiet. The boys in the water peered at the circling manatee through their swim masks.

“Let him come to you,” said the female guide in the same calm voice.

The manatee swam in a tight circle next to the boat. He didn’t seem to mind being touched. Sometimes, his nostrils broke the surface, and he breathed deeply and went under again. The boys on the boat whispered excitedly among themselves.

For several more minutes, the manatee swam slowly around the boys, appearing, as the guide said, quite curious.

But then the manatee turned and began to swim away in the direction of the safe zone. The boys let out a collective yelp of disappointment.

“Don’t follow him,” said the male guide. “He’s playing with you. If you swim after him, he’ll keep going. Stay put. He’ll come back.”

He was right. Hardly a minute later, the manatee reappeared. He swam through the group in the water, rolling on his back as he passed.

Several times, the manatee passed next to the boys, circled around, and passed them again. Each time, the boys patted and scratched his back and sides.

Then, very slowly, and for the first time, the manatee propelled himself directly toward one of the boys. Instead of swimming in lazy circles, he approached the boy head first.

The boy never moved an inch. He floated motionless, head down, watching through his mask as the manatee drifted up to him.

Ultimately, the two of them were less than six inches apart, nose to nose. For several seconds, neither of them moved. The only sound was the clicking of cameras.

I watched, fascinated, as the young boy and the young manatee looked at each other at close range. Long seconds passed. Then the manatee veered away and swam off into the safe zone, this time for good.

What the two of them shared at that moment, I can only guess. But there’s no doubt that the boy will remember the encounter vividly for the rest of his life.

I saw plenty of manatees at Crystal River, and I got plenty of photos. Most of the shots are interesting, but forgettable.

The photo I really wanted, which the boy in the water saw so memorably in person, was a shot of a manatee head-on and close up.

Although that photo eluded me at Crystal River, I got it the following week at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the other side of Florida.

It happened at Mosquito Lagoon, a remote spot on the Intracoastal Waterway where manatees stop to feed while migrating. From a viewing deck overlooking the site, armed with my big Nikon and my best zoom lens, I patiently took photo after photo.

This is my favorite.

Read Full Post »

The manatee, sometimes called the sea cow, is a large, aquatic, herbivorous mammal that has the overstuffed look of a walrus.

Mama and baby manatee.

Manatees are air-breathers, yet they live entirely under water. While awake, they come up for a gulp of air every few minutes. During sleep periods, they surface as infrequently as every 20 minutes.

They are friendly, peaceful, intelligent creatures that live in warm, shallow water, feeding on algae and aquatic plants. Adults can be 12 feet long and weigh 1,200-pounds. Babies are about 40 pounds at birth.

Sea cow may describe their docile nature, but they very much resemble, and in fact are related to, the elephant.

In February, a friend of mine mentioned that her family was going to Florida to swim with the manatees.

Huh? What? Swimming with manatees?

Every year, she said, they drive down to the little town of Crystal River on the Gulf coast of Florida, where hundreds of manatees congregate for the winter.

The town is on King’s Bay, which is fed by freshwater springs — leaks from the Floridan aquifer. The spring water is a constant 72 degrees year-round, which in the winter months is warmer than the Gulf. Manatees can’t tolerate water colder than 65 degrees. Hence, great numbers of them go to King’s Bay for the winter.

So do tourists like my friend, who descend on Crystal River between November and March to interact with the portly beasties via tour boats, dive trips, snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking.

To me, the concept was completely new and totally out of left field. I was so intrigued and fascinated that a week later, I put Paco in the kennel, packed my swim gear, and drove south.

The town of Crystal River is north of Tampa and west of Ocala, on a small bay a few miles inland from the Gulf. Manatee tourism is the local economy’s bread and butter.

Google Earth view of Crystal River.

In Crystal River, the lodging, eateries, and tourist operations are pleasant mom-and-pop outfits. The only corporate behemoths in town are Walmart, Walgreen’s, Family Dollar, and Publix.

The town seems to have all the amenities you need, but with the casual vibe of 30 years ago.

On Day One, I signed up for a half-day guided dive trip. Most of the tour outfitters in town seemed interchangeable, but I went with Manatee Tour & Dive, the company my friend in Jefferson uses. That morning, I found myself part of a group of 10 swimmers.

After we watched a video about the rules of manatee encounters, we were fitted with wetsuits, given swim fins, masks, and snorkels, and herded onto a tour boat.

Next was a five-minute boat ride to the centerpiece of King’s Bay, Three Sisters Springs. The water there is chest-deep, crystal clear, and a beautiful aqua.

Beautiful, but not secluded by any means. The springs are located on one of the town’s numerous residential canals. Overlooking the spot — and lining the web of canals in all directions — are the waterfront homes of the locals.

An amazing place to live, if you can put up with the constant presence of waterborne tourists in your back yard.

At the mouth of spring, we and four or five other tour boats anchored next to a manatee safe zone, which is off limits to people.

The manatees know that, and they congregate behind the ropes, just out of reach of the hovering boats and kayaks and the hoards of swimmers.

When I was there, a dozen or so manatees were resting and grazing on vegetation inside the safe zone. Sometimes, however, the zone will be overflowing.

For the next two hours, we were free to swim and explore as far as stamina permitted.

Once in the water — decked out in my wetsuit and swim gear and clutching a cheap underwater camera — I swam over to the safe zone. Naturally, I wanted to photograph a manatee, preferably head-on from two feet away.

It didn’t happen. Adult manatees prefer to keep their distance. Babies stay close to their mothers. Adolescents sometimes can be curious enough to approach you — but the best I got was a few shots of manatees just out of arm’s reach, ignoring me.

The manatees seem to understand that we mean no harm, but still consider us an unwelcome nuisance.

Now and then, a manatee would arrive or depart the safe zone. This would cause a furor as the tourists, including me, jockeyed to get close.

It was during one of these arrivals that I got my first chance to touch a manatee.

Someone yelled, “Incoming!” and 30 yards up the canal, kayakers and swimmers marked the location by parting to make way for the new arrival. A few seconds later, two nostrils and a massive back appeared at the surface of the water and then disappeared.

It was a big adult, moving slowly along, one yard below the surface, headed toward the safe zone.

When he got to within 10 yards of me, I dove down. (My underwater camera wasn’t ready; I hadn’t gone through the laborious process of winding the film forward and cocking the shutter. By then, it was too late to do it.)

I bobbed quietly in the water and watched through my swim mask as the manatee drifted past. It was huge. Graceful. Serene. I placed one hand on its back, and it passed lightly beneath my fingers.

It feels like an elephant, I thought. A wet elephant.

I’ve never touched an elephant in my life, but that’s what I thought.

For the first half hour, my attention was on the manatees. But soon, I wanted to explore the lagoon where three large springs, the namesake three sisters, emerge from the aquifer.

The three springs are inside a secluded pond connected to King’s Bay by a long, narrow channel. The outflow of water through the channel has a surprisingly strong current.

The swim fins made all the difference. I flippered my way through the channel and emerged inside the lagoon.

The channel leading from King’s Bay to Three Sisters Springs.

The lagoon is completely isolated and natural. On average, the pool is about chest deep. At the point of each spring, the depth is about 15 feet.

I spent most of the next 30 minutes with my head down, breathing through the snorkel, criss-crossing the lagoon and taking in the experience. My most unexpected discovery: hundreds of tiny “sand boils” created by spring water percolating up in random spots through the sandy floor of the lagoon.

Part of the time, I had the lagoon to myself; sometimes, other swimmers and kayakers were there with me.

But everyone felt compelled to remain silent. It’s that kind of place.

Eventually, I swam back out to King’s Bay and climbed aboard the tour boat to rest. The scene was the same: boats and swimmers lined up around the safe zone, watching the manatees, hoping for an encounter.

After a drink and a snack, I got back in the water and explored the canal a short distance in both directions. I didn’t go far. After being at it for three hours, I was exhausted.

Swimming with the manatees had been an amazing experience. Being at and below water level is a unique perspective.

But in some ways, it’s a limited perspective. I already knew I would be back the next day in a kayak, to see it all again from a fresh vantage point.

More about that in my next post.

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 »

Life on the Treadmill

Being retired, I am free to range far and wide at leisure, often on errands of little importance. I’ve been known to drive 20 miles merely to drop off my recycling, eat lunch, and purchase dog treats.

My life of indolence is well-earned, mind you. I paid my dues — all those years as a wage slave, commuter, taxpayer, husband, and father. Today, as I go through life piddling around and enjoying the scenery, I feel no remorse.

Of course, I do sympathize with folks who are still on the treadmill. Both of my sons, for example, work very hard at life. Ah, yes, I remember it well.

When you think about it, life on the treadmill is the norm everywhere, for all creatures. A minor percentage of lucky humans can “retire,” but the rest of creation works hard every day to survive. They do it all their lives.

Consider the example of a certain hawk I see each time I drive to Athens.

The main road from my fair city, Jefferson, to the nearest metropolis, Athens, is U.S. 129. It is a divided four-lane highway, fine and scenic, lightly traveled, always a pleasant drive.

About halfway between Jefferson and Athens is the unincorporated community of Redstone. In that area, on the west side of the highway, the pine/hardwood forest gives way to vast open fields that go on for several miles.

This is where the hawk perches on a powerline, the perfect vantage point to scan the open fields for prey.

I see the hawk virtually every time I drive through Redstone. He is always perched somewhere along the powerline. He is, I assume, focused intently on the field below, alert for movement in the grass.

This is the hawk’s treadmill. He has done this, and will continue to do it, for as long as he lives.

About six months ago, after the presence of the hawk in hunting mode got my attention, I began to look for him. Spotting the hawk became a routine part of my trips to Athens.

On the rare days when I didn’t see him, I was deeply disappointed. But on most trips, there he was, perched motionless on the wire, on duty.

Eventually, it occurred to me that I had seen the hawk in that familiar pose dozens of times, but I had never seen him in pursuit of prey. In truth, I only see him for about 20 seconds at a time. The odds of being able to watch the hunter go hunting are against me.

But last week, the odds broke in my favor.

On my way to Athens one morning, I spotted the hawk up ahead in his customary pose on the powerline. Suddenly, as I drew alongside, he took flight.

He launched himself from the powerline — more accurately, he dropped from the line — and soared in a straight, graceful trajectory toward a spot in the field.

Like an airplane coming in for a landing, he approached the target. Based on his glide path, I could identify the location of the prey ahead of time.

Then, with delicate precision, he extended his talons and picked up a small grayish something from the floor of the meadow.

With the prey secured, the hawk rose into the air again, wings flapping powerfully.

Before I rounded a curve and lost sight of him, he was flying toward a bank of trees in the distance, his lunch dangling from one talon.


Read Full Post »

I just got back from a short trip down to the Georgia coast. I went for two reasons: first, to take the half-day tour of Sapelo Island; and second, to take photos at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. I got to do both.

When I travel, regardless of where I travel, I am always struck by the fascinating stories and the rich local history you find when you take time to look.

I don’t mean the big, important stuff  taught in school. I’m referring to the details of local history that non-locals rarely have occasion to learn.

When you think about it, the history we all know is only a tiny sliver of the total experience of the population. Around us is a treasure trove, an immense pool of history writ small.

I mention this because I came home from my trip with a head full of terrific stories about coastal Georgia.

There is, for example, Ophelia Dent, a spinster who died in 1973 and left her family home to the State of Georgia for “scientific, historical, educational and aesthetic purposes.”

What was her family home? The Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, a sprawling former rice plantation and dairy farm dating back to 1806. The property provides invaluable archeological data about the lives of planters and slaves. The plantation house itself, built in the 1850s, contains priceless antiques collected by Ophelia’s family over five generations.

Then there is Harris Neck, a remote peninsula just inland from the coastal barrier islands.

Located 50 miles south of Savannah, Harris Neck is named for William Harris, who arrived in 1750 with a group of Scottish settlers.

The wildlife refuge on Harris Neck consists of 2,800 acres of saltwater marsh, pine/oak forest, open fields, and man-made freshwater ponds.

The place is a sanctuary for a variety of migratory birds and assorted resident animals, all of them safe from the threat of development and commercialization. On any given day, you may see deer, ducks, wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds, eagles, hawks, turkey, quail, alligators, or armadillos.

A bit of Harris Neck history…

For many decades, like much of coastal Georgia, Harris Neck was populated by a few rice and cotton plantations and scattered families of farmers and fisherman.

After the Civil War, Margret Harris, a descendant of William Harris, willed her property to Robert Dellegall, her former slave. She said she trusted him far more than the whites she had known and done business with.

Dellegall shared the land with other freed slaves. From the end of the Civil War until the beginning of World War II, Harris Neck was home to 50-100 families, some black and some white.

When World War II arrived, life for the residents changed abruptly. In 1942, the Army confiscated Harris Neck to construct a military airfield. It was one of many takings by eminent domain that occurred as part of the war effort.

At the time, black families owned 1,100 acres on Harris Neck, and white families owned 1,500. The 84 landowners were paid a flat sum per acre and given two weeks to vacate.

Harris Neck Army Airfield was quickly constructed, and it became a training base for fighter pilots. My dad, a Savannah native, flew sub-spotting missions there.

After the war, the airfield was no longer needed. It was decommissioned in 1946 and turned over to McIntosh County for use as an airport.

Which was truly a mistake. The county was too small to need an airport, and anyway, the property was in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from the county seat of Darien.

For several years, while the base sat idle, corrupt local officials and free-lance thieves dismantled the buildings and stripped the property of everything of value.

An old plantation house nearby, which had been used as an Officer’s Club during the war, was leased to the county sheriff. He operated it as a private club. Drinking and gambling occurred there, allegedly.

In 1949, citing gross mismanagement, the Federal Aviation Administration reclaimed the airport property. Various theft and racketeering charges were filed, but no prosecutions came of them.

Eventually, ownership of “Harris Neck Airport” was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The wildlife refuge was established in 1962.

Today, the refuge is a successful, important operation. It provides habitat for numerous migratory birds and protection for many endangered plant and animal species. In the spring, the giant rookeries of herons and wood storks are an amazing spectacle.

The story of Harris Neck should end there on that upbeat note, but it doesn’t.

In 2006, an organization called the Harris Neck Land Trust was established. The Trust represents “all the surviving African American families that lived on Harris Neck until 1942 as well as the few white families that owned property but did not live on the land.”

The mission of the Trust is to return Harris Neck to its former owners because the land was “wrongfully and illegally taken by the federal government.”

This group claims that in 1942, local politicians tricked the Army into choosing the Harris Neck site, knowing the county would get the property when the war ended.

Unfortunately for the Trust, the legality of the land confiscation was upheld years ago. Even the price paid to the former landowners was deemed to be reasonable.

The right of the state to seize private property may be distasteful, especially when it affects you, but it’s the law.

One other element of the Trust’s activities is worth mentioning. Legally, the Trust is free to make a profit. And, according to accounts, the Trust has specific plans for Harris Neck, should it win control.

Among the proposals: four-acre home sites, a hotel, and a convention center.

A cynical person might be tempted to see the Trust as a front for private developers.

When the Army took over Harris Neck in 1942, one fairly large estate was on the property. It was the Lorillard-Livingston House, built in the late 1800s by Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco magnate. This was the building used as an Officer’s Club and later as the sheriff’s speakeasy. Alleged speakeasy.

Today, all traces of the mansion are gone, except for three small remnants.

Two are shallow, in-ground concrete pools, probably decorative in nature. The third is a large concrete fountain, commanding and elegant, standing alone beneath the trees.

As I looked up at the old fountain, it was easy to imagine Pierre Lorillard strolling along on a spring evening, a lady on his arm, a mint julep in his hand.

A colony of wood storks at Harris Neck NWR.

One of the decorative pools at the site of the old mansion.

The fountain, the last sentinel, still on duty.

Read Full Post »

Mt. Mazama

A few weeks ago, I sent this email to my grandkids who are old enough to read…


Dear Katie, Kelsey, and Maddie,

I learned something really interesting on my trip to the West Coast, and I wanted to tell you about it.

If you don’t think it’s interesting, then your brain isn’t in straight.

Up in the Northwest part of the U.S. (in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California) there is a long chain of mountains called the Cascade Range.

These mountains were formed millions of years ago by volcanoes that erupted again and again. Every time the hot lava poured out, it made the mountains taller.

I’m sure you have learned about volcanoes already. The earth has a hard surface, but deep down inside the earth, the rock is under great pressure from all that weight on top of it. This causes the rock to heat up and melt.

Lava is the super-hot, melted rock inside the earth. Sometimes, it works its way upward through cracks, and it breaks through to the surface. You don’t want to be around when that happens.

Most of the big peaks in the Cascade Mountains are “active volcanoes,” but the chances of an eruption are small. Volcanoes do not erupt very often. The last eruption in the U.S. was in 1980, when Mt. St. Helens went ka-boom.

(I went to see Mt. St. Helens on my trip. One half on the mountain’s peak is missing.)

Today, the tallest mountain in the Cascades is Mt. Ranier, which is over 14,000 feet tall. It is so tall that the snow on top never melts.

But a few thousand years ago, one mountain in the Cascades was even taller. It was located south of Mt. Ranier in southern Oregon. The native Americans who lived there at the time called it Mt. Mazama.

Well, you’re probably asking, if Mt. Mazama USED TO BE the tallest mountain in the Cascades, why isn’t it STILL the tallest mountain?

That’s what makes the story so interesting. Be patient, and I will explain.

Way back a few thousand years ago, Mt. Mazama got big because it experienced so many volcanic eruptions. A lot of lava flowed out, piled up on the slopes, and made the mountain grow.

As it turned out, the ground under Mt. Mazama had more cracks than most places. The lava had an easy time oozing upward through the cracks.

Pretty soon, a huge pool of hot lava formed underneath Mt. Mazama. The lava kept oozing upward, and the lava pool got bigger and bigger. Now and then, the mountain would erupt, but the pool kept growing.

Finally, the pool of lava got so huge, and the pressure got so great, that the mountain couldn’t hold it back any longer. It erupted in a huge, spectacular KA-BLOOEY that sent lava blasting in all directions.

But that created another problem. One minute, a pool of lava was underneath the mountain, and the next minute, it was gone. In other words, now there was a huge empty space down there — a giant lava chamber with nothing in it.

A great big nothing with a huge mountain sitting on top of it. Hmmm.

You guessed it — Mighty Mt. Mazama suddenly collapsed into the chamber. The mountain changed from a tall peak to a sunken crater. It became like a giant salad bowl, with high sides and a hollowed-out interior.

The crater was five miles from one side to the other and almost 2,000 feet deep.

Chances are, some of the native Americans saw the whole thing. But they wouldn’t have survived to tell about it.

After the big event was over, everything probably got quiet. The dust and the ash settled after a while, and over the years, the trees and grass grew back.

Over the centuries, the crater filled up with rainwater and melting snow. The water had no way to drain out, so the crater became a giant lake.

I went to see that lake on my vacation. It’s called Crater Lake. It is now a National Park, and it is the deepest lake in the United States. The water is so blue, it almost hurts your eyes.

Crater Lake is spectacular. But to me, it will always be Mt. Mazama!


— Rocky

Crater Lake, formerly Mt. Mazama.

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 »

The Fridge in the Hooch

The Chattahoochee River in North Georgia begins, appropriately, at Chattahoochee Spring, located in Chattahoochee Gap, on the southern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

At the spring, the water bubbles weakly from the ground and cascades through a series of small pools. Not very impressive.

But as it flows downhill, other springs and streams add to its volume. Soon, it becomes a rocky, lively mountain river, tumbling south toward Atlanta.

Time was, the Hooch flowed southward unimpeded. That isn’t the case anymore. It still flows onward to the Gulf, but by the time it reaches the northern edge of Metro Atlanta, the river has been tamed.

The culprit is Lake Sidney Lanier, formed by Buford Dam. Lake Lanier is 93 square miles big, with 700 miles of shoreline. The lake intrudes upstream on the Chattahoochee for many miles.

The truth is, the Chattahoochee stops being a river and becomes a lake about 10 miles before it reaches Gainesville, near the little town of Lula.

From that point south, the Hooch has a few interesting pockets, but mostly isn’t worth your time.

From that point north, it’s terrific.

I own a recreational kayak, which is a hybrid with a keel to help you go in a straight line. It’s perfect for that section of the Hooch below the mountains and above the lake. I’ve paddled there many times.

It’s pretty amazing up there — clean, green, and beautiful. A few bridges span the river, but the stretches between them are long and pristine.

There are no houses, billboards, or other man-made structures along the banks. All you’ll see are herons, egrets, the occasional group of cows in a riverside pasture, and a few small fishing boats.

The fishermen have it easy. They motor upstream and stake out a likely spot. Kayakers have to work a little harder.

Actually, it isn’t that difficult to paddle a kayak upstream against the current, but you can’t stop. If you do, you go backward.

My usual practice is to head north and keep stroking, with a rest-pause every few minutes. It’s surprising how much progress you can make. Every hour or so, I will tie up to a tree, have a drink and a snack, and recover.

Several years ago, I decided to go for distance. I wanted to see how far upstream I could advance — no gawking and sightseeing.

I started early in the morning at Belton Bridge Park in Hall County are headed upstream.

A few hours later, I began to encounter a few ripples and shoals. To get upstream of them required tricky maneuvering and hard paddling.

As the obstacles got more numerous and more difficult, I got more exhausted. At length, I came to a pour-over that ran from bank to bank. After several attempts to find a way past it, I gave up.

It was about 2:00 PM. I turned around and began the long drift back to the car. Far from being disappointed, I was relieved, and also proud of a good day’s work.

The float back downstream on trips like that is always a pleasure. It’s the reward you earned for your efforts. No paddling is required. Just a bit of steering. It’s all very indolent.

For most of that day, I had been a long way from any roads that provided access to the river. But by 4:00 PM, as I was getting close to the put-in, civilization wasn’t far away.

So when I came around a bend in the river and saw a man on the left bank in the distance, it wasn’t a surprise.

He was a thin Caucasian fellow, about 40, wearing long pants and standing in the water up to his knees. On the bank beside him was a refrigerator.

As I drifted silently toward him, still 100 yards away, the man began wrestling the refrigerator into the river.

He tilted it on its side and let it drop into the water. The door was secured with a strap, so the fridge didn’t sink. It bobbed there as he maneuvered it further from shore.

Standing waist deep in the river, the man loosened the strap. Water flowed in. As he pushed and guided, the refrigerator started sinking at an angle.

In a few seconds, only a six-inch white pyramid, the corner of the appliance, was showing. By then, the man was up to his neck in the water. He pushed and pulled energetically, and the pyramid finally disappeared.

By the time the man waded ashore and turned to look back at his handiwork, I was floating past him 10 yards from shore.

He went rigid. His eyes widened, and he stared at me. Looking quickly left and right, and without a word, he turned and disappeared into the woods.

I paddled over to the sunken refrigerator, which was mere inches below the surface. The door was ajar, but I couldn’t quite see inside.

That’s when the questions began to bubble up.

Was the appliance empty? Had he jettisoned a piece of junk or dumped a body?

Had he run away because dumping is illegal, or had he gone to get his pistol out of the glove compartment?

Feeling way too vulnerable, I slipped back into the current and vacated the area.

The boat ramp was only a minute or two downstream, and I was soon back on dry land. I hurriedly secured the kayak to the roof of my car and drove away.

By the time I got home, I had decided to notify the Hall County Sheriff’s office.

The dispatcher listened to my story without the slightest hint of interest. She said she would pass along the information to the proper people, but I doubt if she did. I can’t feature a uniformed deputy wading into the river to investigate a refrigerator.

Which, when you think about it, means that the fridge is probably still there.

Personally, I have no intention of going back to find out. But if you’d care to do so, the refrigerator is located on the east bank of the Chattahoochee River, a few yards downstream from the confluence with Mud Creek, about 10 feet from shore.

If you want the GPS coordinates, let me know.

The Hooch near Belton Bridge Park.

The Hooch near Belton Bridge Park.

The upper Hooch.

The upper Hooch.

Read Full Post »

News to Me

I think of myself as an observant person. Relatively well informed. Inquisitive. Interested in a variety of things.

That being the case, I hate it when I learn something that’s news to me, and shouldn’t be.

The fact is, I tune out a lot of things because I’m simply not interested. I couldn’t name a contestant on American Idol, a hockey team, or the title of a song by Beyoncé.

But when I stumble upon something that does interest me, was there all along, and I missed it somehow — that bugs me no end.

Take, for example, acorn woodpeckers.

These loco little birds are, if you’ll pardon the pun, nut cases.

Acorn woodpeckers live in extended family groups, the members of which spend countless hours boring holes in trees and telephone poles. In the fall, they harvest acorns and stuff them into the holes.

A week or so ago, I ran across an article with acorn woodpecker in the title. That funky name immediately elicited a Scooby-Doo-type reaction — “Huh?”

So I Googled the name and was introduced to melanerpes formicivorus, the acorn woodpecker, a common bird in western forests.

The more I read, the more surprised I became that I’d never heard of these birds before. Where had I been?

Their range is most of California, parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and throughout Mexico and Central America.

They are industrious and single-minded. Typically, they select a single “granary tree” and adorn it with up to 50,000 holes.

If human-made structures are around, the birds will gladly peck holes in them, too. They’ll drill into fence posts, utility poles, buildings, even automobile radiators.

Sometimes, the birds store acorns in places where they can’t get them back out. In one instance in Arizona, a family of woodpeckers drilled holes in a wooden water tank and inserted 485 pounds of acorns. The acorns, of course, fell irretrievably to the floor of the tank.

Can you say bird-brain?

The nutty little bird himself.

The nutty little bird himself.

A granary tree.

A granary tree.

Tucked away for a winter snack.

Tucked away for a winter snack.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »