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The Book is Available Now!

10 Dec

I am excited to announce that you can now order Seasons of Letting Go on Amazon.com!

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From the time I began the blog that spawned this book, I had all of my large network of friends in mind as my audience. If you know me at all, whether through the travel industry, as a Facebook connection or as a friend, there is something for you in these 12 essays and 92 illustrated pages.

If you have experienced a loss, this book is especially for you. Yet, although it came to be through the event of a death, this book is about life and living it to the fullest. Happy Holidays!

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22 Easters gone: Lessons from my dad

19 Apr

IMG_5064Legend has it that, as a child, I slept through a lot of my dad’s sermons. In fact, I can remember doing this. I’d curl up beside my mom on the padded pew and drift off into the deep slumber of an active preacher’s kid growing up at a camp, lulled by the rich and familiar tone of my dad’s stentorian voice.

Even in my sleep I believe the structure of the sermons reached me on some level, as when I consider the way I construct my own essays today, I believe they are derived somewhat from the sermons my dad so eloquently delivered, speeches that were essentially essays themselves.

Dad had a great formula. He’d start on a personal level, relating an everyday down-to-earth anecdote to establish a bond with his listeners. Then he’d read a passage of scripture and do some analysis of it, bringing to bear on the text the words of contemporary scholars, professors and his own insights. To me as a child, this part seemed to go on and on.

But then came the part I liked best: some story or illustration that, at first, would seem completely out of the blue. When he’d start telling this story, some compelling, magical quality came into his voice that usually caused me to wake up to listen to it. I learned that the tale would have pertinence to the topic beyond all expectation. As the voice of Francis Ross Figart, Jr., built up into an insistent crescendo, it suddenly became clear to all that the point of this analogy was exactly what the scripture was saying.

I remember two such illustrations in particular: one about not judging and one about trust.

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The first story was about how my dad went to the airport in Louisville in the late 60s to pick up a “summer missionary” from some other state who would be working with the small churches in Eastern Kentucky to help them run programs like Vacation Bible School. I think her plane was delayed and when he picked her up they basically had to drive directly to a church service up in the mountains.

When Dad met the young woman at the airport, he was startled to see that she was dressed impeccably from head to toe in an expensive white suit that was the fashion of the day. Dad worried on the way to the hollers whether this gal knew what she was getting into, and was concerned she might not be well suited to work with the people in the impoverished area they were driving to.

As they made their way up into the foothills of the Appalachians, it was evident that recent rains had brought flash flooding and creeks were running high. When they got to the small mountain mission, the people from the community were also arriving and a group of little children were playing in the churchyard.

KY - two girlsUnlike the new summer missionary, these kids weren’t wearing their Sunday best. Families in that area often did not have running water, kids were usually covered in coal dust, and in fact, Dad said, they had gotten pretty muddy playing on the soggy grounds of the tiny church.

Dad held his breath and watched as this woman who was dressed so impeccably got out of the station wagon, and immediately went toward the little kids, getting down on her knees to greet them with hugs and smiles. They instantly loved her because she talked differently and was so beautiful and interesting. She paid not one bit of attention to her attire, nor did the kids, and she turned out to be the best person for the job he could have ever imagined.

lrc-87-451x300The other story was set on the campus of Kentucky’s Georgetown College, my dad’s alma mater where he was number one dude on the debate team. One of his good friends was a fellow student who, if my memory serves, was named Ernie. The fact that Ernie was completely blind didn’t prevent him from being totally self-sufficient. He walked all over campus by himself because he had learned where everything was; he didn’t let his disability slow him down.

One fall, Dad had just arrived back on campus to go through registration for the new semester. He was walking out of the admissions building and looked across the quad and saw Ernie, striding rapidly as usual across the courtyard. At the same instant that he saw Ernie, Dad also noticed that during the summer break some construction had begun on the main campus thoroughfare: where normally there had been a sidewalk, now there was a gaping pit, taller than a person. Ernie was confidently pacing right toward that huge hole!

imagesErnie was pretty far across the campus, but my dad had this booming voice that those who knew him distinctly remember. He called out the command: “Ernie, STOP!” And as Dad’s voice echoed across the quad, just one step before disaster, Ernie did. He recognized the deep voice of his friend, trusted it, and obeyed. Dad went running over to Ernie to explain, and the two had a good laugh.

Just before my mom died, she and I talked about these illustrations and she remembered them too. Maybe she recalled the details a little differently than I do – and even knew the scripture that went with them – but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is, the messages behind these modern day parables got through – to both of us.

My turn to pull it all together.

One of the big reasons I came to Western North Carolina has to do with the adage of not judging a book by its cover. Here in Asheville, it’s common to see stereotypes of dress defied; often the person in a crowd who most resembles a homeless vagrant may be the one who has the most money; I have seen it over and over again in the retail store where I work. Conversely, it’s not unusual for those who appear in the most fashionable attire to be the nitty gritty, hard working volunteers who help needy animals and children with deep commitment. Grubby Appalachian Trail hikers walking into a mountain town may just as well be doctors or lawyers as students or “trustafarians.” I love being in an area that has this equalizing factor.

My dad would probably call it the voice of God, but I think of it as my intuition when something tells me I need to slow down lest I fail to notice a gaping hole in front of me. Whatever it is, when it says, “stop,” I trust and stop. And when it says, “go,” well, as Daddy would say, you better believe… I go!

Trusting that intuition once again as part of an almost two-year long transition to a new place and new life, I’ve become engaged to an amazing person who defies many stereotypes and possesses wisdom and balance that I haven’t encountered for about 22 years.

Dedicated to Ross Figart, Sept. 30, 1926-April 10, 1992.

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Hike #10: Coontree Loop

10 Sep

512DbD3pegL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_Several weeks ago I visited a trail that I learned about from a great new book collecting 35 trails in and around Asheville. The author is Jennifer Pharr Davis, who took on the entire Appalachian Trail solo at age 21; since then, she has hiked the AT twice more, setting endurance and speed records. She is going to be a guest of The Compleat Naturalist (where I work) Friday, Nov. 15, to speak as part of our “Meet the Naturalist” series.

The trail I chose to explore is called the Coontree Loop. It’s actually what Pharr Davis calls a “balloon,” which means there is a “string” that you hike in on, and then the trail divides into two directions. I went left, at the book’s suggestion, so that the grade would not be as steep heading up to the ridgeline.

One of the great things about this little hiking guide is that it shows a diagram of each hike’s elevation gain. This one is basically a typical bell curve: the hiker starts out going up up up, and finishes going down down down.

Something else that sets Five-Star Trails: Asheville apart from other area guides is that all the trails are rated for scenery, condition, difficulty, solitude and appropriateness for children. Also provided is a list of which of the 35 hikes are best for: convenience, geology, history, kids, scenery, seclusion, waterfalls, wildflowers and wildlife.

IMG_2156Pharr Davis divides her book into geographical sections: Central, North, East, South and West. Coontree Loop is in the South section and is part of Pisgah National Forest not far from the town of Brevard. It is accessed across US 276 from the popular Coontree Picnic and Parking Area, which is right beside picturesque Coontree Creek, also visible from much of the loop itself, along with another small mountain stream.

The weather was perfect for mid summer and the dense canopy on this trail provided a natural cooling system that comforts the ascending hiker. However, I was thankful that I had chosen to bring along my Camelback to stay completely hydrated during the somewhat strenuous climb.

One of the mild disappointments of hiking the Coon Tree Loop in summer is that after one has ascended approximately 1,000 feet, the reward of a sweeping view of the landscape below is never delivered. The upper part of the trail is a wooded ridge, whose overlooks of Chestnut Knob and Black Mountain are only easily visible during winter.

Going downhill is always easier for me than up, but for those with knee concerns, this trail may not be the best choice. Pharr Davis warns that during rainy periods the descent can be tricky due to some erosion; she suggests bringing hiking poles.

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While I’ll never have the endurance of a Jennifer Pharr Davis, I am thrilled that I can tackle a trail with the short but steep elevation gain of Coontree Loop. As I write this, exactly 30 years ago this week I was on a respirator in an intensive care unit in Kansas, having had a code blue – I stopped breathing following an asthmatic episode. For years after that I was on many asthma meds and rarely walked far. Today I take only seasonal allergy meds, keep a mostly unused inhaler on hand and get out in nature and hike as much as I can.

I’ll remember Coontree Loop as a beautiful short trail providing a nice, steady workout. Wading in the rocky Coontree Creek at the picnic area is an exhilarating way to cool off and relax after the hike.

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Distance traveled: 3.7 miles

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous with some erosion

Flora of note: sycamore, beech, hemlock, mountain laurel, rhododendron, several fern and moss varieties, oyster mushrooms, red brick top mushrooms, Heal All or Prunella Vulgaris

Some photos by Nate Miller

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Hike #9: Pink Beds Trail

13 Jun

As I suspected would happen upon moving to Western North Carolina, my hiking is starting to get ahead of my blogging. I hiked this trail the last day of May, and want to return soon.

The Pink Beds Trail is in “The Cradle of Forestry in America,” not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The name is derived from the fact that there are many mountain laurel and rhododendron plants here, which, when in full bloom, make the trail pink. I, however, prefer to think of it as the land of ferns.

IMG_0144I first visited the trail two years ago, almost exactly, and I think I need to return in a few more weeks when the pinkness should really be happening. So I’ve never seen it in its full hue.

My favorite thing about the trail is that it’s a 4.3-mile loop around a high-elevation valley, but with only a 500-foot elevation gain – so it’s a good one for a group with people of varying endurance and hiking experience. If you want to cut the loop short, there is another trail bisecting Pink Beds (Barnett Branch).

The trail passes through several different micro-ecosystems, the fern haven being the most picturesque. I’ve never seen so many ferns together in one place. It’s like the forest is carpeted with them and you can see into it for miles, it seems.

It also passes through mountain bogs, which are pretty rare from what I understand – and there are rare plants here: Swamp Pink, for one. Beavers have done some damage to the forest here by damming the river. You’ll also stay close to streams most of the way, which is refreshing and convenient if you have a dog for a companion (which I don’t, yet, but I’m thinking ahead for my future hound).

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The Hike WNC web site, which provides an amazingly detailed description, a GPS map and directions, ranks this as one the best hikes in Western North Carolina. I plan to bring several friends on this trail later this summer when they visit me. If you are reading this and you want to go, just let me know. From where I’m living, I can actually drive to it along the parkway at elevation without going through town!

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Distance traveled: 4.3 miles

Difficulty: Easy with some roots and water crossings

Flora of note: tall pines, oak, tulip poplar, rhododendron, mountain laurel, ferns

Some photos by Nate Miller

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Oh, and a bonus, just after you turn right out of the Pink Beds Trail parking lot, there is a cool gravel road (Mills River) on your right that you can explore before heading back up to the parkway. One section along it has very tall older pines planted in perfect rows (shown above).

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Hike #8: Laurel River Trail

18 May

A week ago, I found myself alone in my new town on Mother’s Day weekend, and decided to do a solo hike to a place I’d been before, the Laurel River Trail.

IMG_9851When I left Asheville around noon, it was starting to rain, but I decided to think positively and by the time I’d passed the turn for Marshall and reached the gravel parking lot near the intersection of Hwy 25/70 and Hwy 208 in Madison County, I’d made it out from under the clouds.

Not long after you set off from the parking lot, a string of out-of-commission train cars can be seen resting peacefully through the trees on your left. Converted from an old railroad, this trail follows the tumultuous Laurel River as it reaches the larger French Broad River, for which many things are named in Western North Carolina, including my favorite chocolate lounge.

What’s most energizing about this trail is one’s proximity to the ever invigorating river. Not only the sights, but the accompanying constant rushing sound of water gushing through the rocks, keeps one feeling perky and quite alive!

When I visited here two years ago, I saw highly skilled and experienced kayakers making their way through the awe-inspiring rapids, which are ranked at Class III-IV at normal water levels. But on this day, if I’d seen a paddler, I would have considered them “loco,” as the water level was very high from recent rain and the current extremely swift through the boulder-strewn passes.

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I usually keep my camera in my pack until something comes along to prompt me to get it out. Last Saturday that something was a cute young garter snake, which I watched glide off into the woods and into a hiding spot from which she peered out at me curiously for quite a while. I thought how many times we are probably watched as hikers by a silent and camouflaged resident that we’d never be able to spot unless we happened to see them retire to their hideout.

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The Laurel River trail is ideal for families or groups in which someone is moving slower, as it’s fairly level and there is little elevation gain. However, low areas can retain mud and in many places your path is covered with thick roots, and in others laced with embedded rocks. Footing can be tricky in these sections.

IMG_9864After about two miles in, the sky began to turn dark and I took this as a warning sign to turn around. About a mile from the trailhead, the rain did come – and I was prepared with my trusty Patagonia rain jacket, in which I stayed dry and warm. I kept a slow pace in the slick mud, made my way out while watching the water beside me slowly rising, and headed for the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.

Distance traveled: 4 miles

Difficulty: easy with some mud, root and rock obstacles

Flora of note: rhododendron, mountain Laurel, pine, maple, oak

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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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Editors, the conductors of the publishing world

6 Mar

I was recently asked by a potential employer to describe the editor’s role within the publishing process. I immediately thought of Swiss conductor Mario Venzago, former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Music Director.

mariovenzago001_webEach time I have attended a performance by a symphony orchestra, most memorably those directed by Venzago, I have sat through most of it in tears. Whether Bruckner or Wagner, Schubert or Liszt, Dvorák or Ravel, the music always moves me deeply. But the emotion comes more from the fact of identifying so strongly with the conductor, and seeing what he does as the quintessential metaphor for what I do, and what others do, when we are editors in every sense of the word.

We put it all together. We choose the material. We set the pace. We communicate and network with all the community stakeholders involved. We choose the players we feel can contribute the most effectively to our ensemble.

We coach others on minute details of their style and performance and somehow keep them feeling not criticized, but motivated because we are working together for something greater than us.

mariovenzago003_minWe hear and see the big picture of how everything needs to come together in the giant whole of a publication. And yet we orchestrate every single detail of everyone on the team pulling together to make it all happen as perfectly as possible.

We cross t’s and dot i’s a lot of the time. But we also plan, prod, goad, think at 20,000 feet so others can focus on smaller parts, coach, mentor, teach, challenge others to reach their potential, juggle all the balls at once – all the while keeping time for the entire group.

Even now, having gone several years without seeing Venzago in action, without hearing the product of his amazing vision in the musical realm, I’m still stirred and motivated by remembering the times I was in his audience. And although he was released unexpectedly and inexplicably from his duties in Indianapolis, I know I join throngs of others in wishing him well as he continues to inspire those fortunate enough to see and hear him in Newcastle, Bern and beyond.

mariovenzago004Not long after being asked to reflect on the editor’s role, I attended a networking luncheon in Asheville, North Carolina. After everyone took turns delivering one-minute introductions, a woman came up to me and provided the name and e-mail address of someone she knew in publishing. “He might not be much help, though,” she said. “He’s just an editor.”

Just an editor? No, I thought. No one is just an editor. Our role is akin to that of Socrates, whom Plato described in his Apology as having said, “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, all day long… arousing and persuading and reproaching… You will not easily find another like me.”

Perhaps like Mario Venzago, I continue to be amazed at our current economy and life’s unexpected crescendos and diminuendos. But in the face of uncertainty, and when I wonder what comes next, I know one thing, and that is that I am proud to be an editor.

We are the conductors, the visionaries, the directors and the gracious gadflies of the publishing world.

Learn more about Mario Venzago.

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Hike #2: Rice Pinnacle at Bent Creek

13 Jan

Today I returned to the Bent Creek area near West Asheville; it was 72 degrees when I started out on a solo adventure around 1 p.m.

IMG_8819Parking at the Rice Pinnacle Trail Head, I first explored the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station’s Bent Creek Centennial Interpretive Trail. This easy loop offers great signage (although each placard was extremely muddy) about the species and work being done in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, which comprises some 6,000 acres and houses the North Carolina State Arboretum.

IMG_8814While on this trail, I decided to practice my intuitive navigational skills. When I came to a sign with an arrow indicating I should stay on the trail by going right, I instead deviated from the marked trail and took an unmarked but decent trail to the left. This took me about a mile into the woods, during which time I made at least seven departures onto different trails, ending up at a pump station and a private property sign. Retracing my steps was fun and challenging – and I only saw a couple of other hikers over in this unmarked area.

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Back on the interpretive trail, I came upon a disturbing sight; a grove of pine trees with huge numbers painted on their trunks! I learned from the muddy placard that “canopy density is related to basal area, which is the total area of trunk cross sections. It determines the amount of light allowed to reach growing seedlings. Studies conducted here compare basal area and canopy density to light penetration. Results help foresters make management decisions and predict future tree species.”

IMG_8797Wondering what it means to predict a species, I returned to the parking area, from which I set off on the Rice Pinnacle Trail, which crosses many of the bends in Bent Creek and eventually links up with the Bent Creek trail loops and Lake Powatan. Because this cluster of trails is convenient to town, it attracts a diversity of outdoor enthusiasts, including mountain bikers, joggers or runners, couples or groups sharing time together as they walk, people walking dogs, and solitary hikers like me.

IMG_8833As I passed these various demographic examples, I thought about the fact that people get out into the woods for different reasons. I go for the exercise of hiking and peace that comes from immersing my senses in the smells, colors and quiet of nature, the only welcome sounds being those of wildlife.

But nature is also a backdrop for social activities, and for adventures that bring people closer together, which usually means sharing the trails with those who enjoy being a lot louder in nature than I would ever choose to be. That being said, everyone I encountered today was polite, especially the mountain bikers, who made a point to slow down when passing me and to tell me how many more of their cyclist friends were coming along behind them.

Even with the flurry of activity around me, I was able to find moments of the peace I was seeking. I got just the right amount of cardiovascular exercise as well. And, my favorite part of the trip was hearing pileated woodpeckers at work just off the beaten track. Leaving the trail, I crossed the creek and sneaked up on them close enough to see the pair distinctly (though lighting was not good for a photo) and got to hear their shrill warning calls for a good five minutes before they unceremoniously departed.

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Distance Traveled: 3.75 to 4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted: Black-capped Chickadee, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker

Flora of note: Yellow Poplar, Black Cherry, White Pine, Mountain Laurel, Club Moss

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Hike #1 of 2013: Bent Creek

10 Jan

I had planned to go to the gym after today’s lunch meeting with a tourism industry colleague in downtown Asheville. But when I emerged from Tupelo Honey, it was a whopping 64 degrees and the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds hovering over the mountains. So I called Nate and suggested we get outside for exercise instead.

117Today we explored the Bent Creek hiking area, located just 15 minutes from downtown Asheville in the northern tip of the Pisgah Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. This watershed is a federal Research and Demonstration forest that backs up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south and a moderately high ridge to the North. The trails here connect with the Mountains to Sea/Shut In Trail, two of Pisgah’s most popular long-distance trails.

The easier trails are close to Lake Powhatan, which features a swimming beach.  Three loop trails – Deerfield Loop, Pine Tree Loop, and Explorer Loop – provide short, easy hikes. We stayed in this area and shared the trails with families, other hikers walking their dogs, and mountain bike enthusiasts.

Bent Creek has a community vibe, yet it does not feel at all crowded. The trails offer plenty of birding opportunities, and run alongside the creek or skirt the lake, allowing many chances to see and hear water. My favorite moment was lying down on the ground near the beach area under some huge white pines and listening to a kingfisher making its rattling call while darting about in the marsh area nearby.

132Distance Traveled:
Approximately 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted:
Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Fox Sparrow

Flora of note:
Hemlock, White Pine, Rhododendron, several varieties of moss

Photos by Nathaniel J. Miller

Learn more on the Hike WNC web site, from which some of this information was derived.

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