Archive | April, 2013

The elusive white squirrel

30 Apr

When I started visiting Western North Carolina, I was enticed to consider moving here by the notion of living where more wildlife viewings are possible – a value that has driven my choices all my life. Over a couple of years of visits, I was fortunate enough to see a mother bear and two cubs, a bobcat and – on one visit to Brevard – white squirrels!

Legend has it the first two white squirrels in Brevard were escapees from an overturned carnival truck back in the 40s – and the dominant gene prevailed among the squirrel population of that region. During the past year, I’ve heard locals mention having seen them closer to Asheville, in Hendersonville and Candler.

So imagine my delight upon hearing from my new landlord that there are a couple of white squirrels that make Town Mountain their home. Figuring it might take quite a while to see the elusive creatures (they seem to know they are easy targets and shy away from movement), I settled into my apartment in the clouds two weeks ago without giving too much thought to the prospect of spotting them.

And yet, on the morning after spending my first night in my new place, no sooner had I driven around the first bend out of my driveway, than I suddenly saw a furry white flash dart in front of my Prius. Looking to the right, I could just make out a flamboyant tail the color of Edgar Winter’s hair disappearing over the bank and into the terraced yard below.

Since then, I’ve seen the squirrels several times, and even been lucky enough to point them out to my friends. On one recent stroll I confirmed that indeed at least two exist here, as I saw them simultaneously, vigorously digging up hidden nuggets in the dirt and cautiously staying out of range of my camera.

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Yesterday I took a walk around my neighborhood with the express purpose of capturing one with my zoom. I did succeed, although my evasive subject preferred to be photographed ass first, as you can see in this short series.

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I’ll attempt to get more and better photographs of these charismatic yet timid beasts. And I’d like to ask you to e-mail me at ffigart@gmail.com a photograph of your favorite member of the animal kingdom that you see within a mile of your home along with a short caption about your sightings. I’ll collect and post these in a blog after May 15.

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Hikes #6 and #7: Pisgah National Forest

28 Apr

Upon officially resettling in North Carolina two weeks ago, one of the most important items on my “to do” list was to go on a hike with the friends who helped me move into my new apartment overlooking Asheville and the surrounding mountains. We ended up choosing two short hikes in different parts of Pisgah National Forest; it was my second visit to both.

IMG_9375The early part of the afternoon was spent exploring the Shope Creek section of the forest, a trail system in the Riceville area near Oteen. Old wide logging roads lead up and into a series of forested footpaths that traverse Shope Creek at various points. Many tall old growth trees shade the trails, despite logging in the not-so-distant past.

Getting across the creek makes for some tedious balancing acts when water is running high, as it was this day due to recent rains. My crossings reminded me of how you sometimes have to make decisions fast and intuitively to keep your balance when in the middle of transition.

Whether you decide to de-shoe and cross the creek barefooted, as one of us did, or keep your hikers on for better traction, which was my choice, you’re bound to come into direct contact with the cool water at some point. Three of us came out of the woods with damp shoes and socks.

In two visits to Shope Creek I’ve only seen one other hiker, so it’s a wonderful choice if you want to be out in nature without a crowd. This is a good place to hunt for morels, I am told. Birding is also great here, with many spring migrants flitting about, including fast-moving warblers high up in the dense canopy.

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Finishing a loop slightly more than a mile long, we headed out of Riceville under impending rain clouds and headed for Barnardsville and the lower approach to Douglas Falls in the Big Ivy section of Pisgah.

IMG_9458Some hikers like to approach these falls from Craggy Pinnacle just below the Blue Ridge Parkway. But the way we love to go is via Dilligham Road, which turns into a gravel road, FR 74. Amid a few raindrops, we climbed slowly up the mountain in the Prius for nine miles of gorgeous scenic woods, passing a dozen small waterfalls along the way! On an earlier visit, we actually saw two Barred Owls along this nine-mile stretch.

By the time we got to the parking area, the sun was out and the trail only a little muddy in places from recent showers. Along the short hike into the 70-foot waterfall, we were surrounded by thick forest that includes large Eastern Hemlocks, dead due to the Wooly Adelgid. The trail is moderate in places, but mostly easy with no elevation gain unless you go beyond the lower falls.

The falls themselves were enchanting, relaxing, marvelous and rejuvenating. What a fantastic reward for our long drive and short hike! We all just wanted to stay and bask in the sights, sounds and smells of this picturesque wooded scene.

Returning to both these favored hiking areas of Pisgah gave me a feeling of coming home. Going to the woods, I am making North Carolina mine, and loving it.

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Distance traveled: less than 3 miles

Difficulty: easy to moderate in places

Flora of note: Hemlock, Pine, Rhododendron, Trillium, Violets, Fiddleheads

Guest photographers: Joseph Lamirand and Nate Miller

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Hike #5 Mountain Springs Road

13 Apr

DSC06454“Look, Daddy, it’s a natural tree tunnel,” shrieked the six-year-old girl in delight.

From behind the wheel of the sky blue Valiant Station Wagon, Ross Figart clapped his strong, olive-colored hands together once and smiled his biggest, sweetest smile. This signified his approval of the moniker his daughter had coined for sections of curving mountain roads where the trees were so old and their branches so outstretched that they literally joined each other over the roadway, forming a canopy.

The diminutive child arched her back, lifted her pointed little chin, pushed her unruly camel-colored hair behind her elfin ears and breathlessly took in the overwhelming vision of deep green hues rushing by and encasing them in wonder.

“It’s like a dream world,” she cooed, peering out the window and into the shady branches as they careened past, hoping to glimpse at least one fairy.

DSC04799The year was 1970 and the roads took us through the forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, where my father made his living as a Southern Baptist minister. He preached not hell and brimstone, but compassion and forgiveness. People adored him wherever he went, whether it was to Hyden or Hazard, Pikeville or Prestonsburg. And he adored the mountain people and their culture, a love he also instilled in me – along with his love of nature and of trees. The greatest gift he and my mother would give me was an idyllic childhood that could rival that of Wordsworth in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the wooded premises of a summer camp that was part of their ministry.

After I grew up and left Kentucky, whenever we would connect on the phone, I could hear Dad smiling as he’d say, “You’d like where I went today.” He would have just returned home from a trip to some remote community like Whitesburg, Grayson, Pippa Passes, or Booger Branch (yes, this is an actual place). “There were lots of natural tree tunnels.”

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Thirty years later in 2000, eight years after my dad had passed on, I finally got an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: I went on a quest to find some forested property to purchase in Eastern Kentucky. I will never forget the first time I ever drove down Mountain Springs Road in Estill County, in search of a remote cabin that was listed for sale in an area called Furnace.

DSC06151My sidekick that day was my spiky-purple-haired New Yorker friend Cindi, who had implanted herself in Estill County a few years prior, and quite staunchly I might add. Even streetwise Cindi, who is rarely caught off guard, was taken somewhat aback when I began to shriek like a child at the amazing trees, whose branches bent and met as if in prayer over the winding gravel road. “These are the natural tree tunnels!” I screamed at her over the din of the Rav4’s tires on the thick gravel.

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The cabin itself was situated on a knoll that crowned six acres, two miles in at the head of this heavenly mountain “holler.” The greater forest of which this small plot of land was part teemed with wildlife! To a wood spirit like me, the place was perfect. Tree-covered, rustic, comfortable, private (the nearest communities were all 30 minutes away) yet accessible (I could get to my office in Lexington in an hour) – and with a few improvements and embellishments, it became utterly and completely home. My plan, very simply, was to live out my life on Furnace Mountain.

But fate had other ideas. In a few short years, everything would change. And it all started because I loved – and lost – the trees.

DSC06115About five years into my stay, much of the land around the cabin was unsustainably and mercilessly logged, the beautiful forest habitat ravaged by the largest and most ruthless equipment used in the state. Catalyzed by this catastrophe, which I worked for a year to try to prevent, changes would lead me to let go of the one thing I thought I’d always keep: I sold the cabin.

DSC04808But letting go of what we can’t imagine letting go of always leads to new adventures – to realities that before could have only seemed like dream worlds from a childhood fantasy. Before long, I would be riding through natural tree tunnels in the lush forests of Costa Rica. And from that land of diversity, I’d eventually return to Kentucky to help my mother die, two decades after losing my father.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to spend my last day as a Kentucky resident. Tomorrow I’ll head south and try to make a new life for myself in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be living at 3,000 feet elevation overlooking the city and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, with abundant bird life, resident white squirrels, black bears passing by and natural tree tunnels surrounding me once more.

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Last week, I returned to Mountain Springs Road for a hike with my dear friend Jane, who now has a small cabin not far from my erstwhile home, which is well cared for by its new owners. Every bend in the two-mile road brought memories flooding back. We hiked on Forest Service Road 2057, which I used to walk with my dogs almost every day for the six years I lived there; I was walking on that road when the planes hit the towers. We visited the special rock sanctuary there, a sacred formation known only to a handful of locals. And I said my goodbyes.

I love Eastern Kentucky. And, although I’m not sure what is coming next, I cannot deny that I also love change – probably as much as I love mountains, mountain people, and trees. North Carolina, ready or not, here I come.

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