The Raleigh Naturalist

July 13, 2009

Maine Course, Thoreau on the side

     Cara and I stayed in Bar Harbor, Maine the last week in June, exploring Acadia National Park and the coast of Mount Desert Island.  We had some wonderful nature adventures, and I made use of a unique opportunity to read about Thoreau’s Maine travels while in the context of that landscape.  He traveled there 3 times 1846-57, and wrote essays collected as The Maine Woods.  I purchased a sumptuous guide book based on his trips in Central Maine , and though Thoreau’s travels were inland (mostly traveling by canoe over lake water), he was a great spiritual companion for my Maine experience, especially when I returned home and read my copy of the original Thoreau book.

It is a country full of evergreen trees, of mossy silver birches and watery maples, the ground dotted with insipid, small red berries and strewn with damp and overgrown rocks, – a country diversified with innumerable lakes and rapid streams.          H.D. Thoreau, Ktaadn

     We experienced terrain much like he describes on our visit to the Blagden Nature Preserve at Indian Point, pictured above.  The Nature Conservancy holds a strip of land that stretches past private properties down to Indian Point, an outcrop jutting into the Western bay that is home to the largest population of harbor seals north of Boston.  We went at high tide and couldn’t see the seals, but we could hear their grunting and jostling through the foggy bay waters.

Indian Point, Mount Desert Island

Most of our time in the island’s interior was spent in Acadia National Park itself, which was founded by George Dorr with huge support from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Rockefeller loved designing and building roads and bridges, but he didn’t like automobiles much.  The covenant he set on the 47 miles of carriage roads he built and donated still protects the park today.

                     Acadia carriage_1_1                Acadia horseman_1_1

The carriage ride showed us 5 of the 14 stone bridges in the park.  Our driver was a horseman from Pennsylvania who uses these horses for logging in the winter and hauls eight of them to Acadia each summer for some productive exercise!

     We did use our car to travel to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the huge, glacier-scraped slab of granite that is Mount Desert Island.  We caught a brief respite in the cloudy mists that enveloped us much of the week and were able to see upper Frenchman’s Bay, the location of our cottage, the town of Bar Harbor and it’s namesake island, whose sandbar constitutes an extension of Bridge Street, accessible on foot or by vehicle during low tides, and Otter Point, whose cliffs make the beautiful scene photographed by Cara below.

Cara and I are both point-n-shoot folks, but we both had some luck on this trip, displayed in the photo albums linked at the end of this post.  Below is my shot of upper Frenchman’s Bay.  The triangular protrusion just to the right of center is Sand Point, where we stayed.  We could walk at low tide and see all kinds of barnacles, clams and sometimes starfish.

  starfish by Cara_1_1  purple starfish by Cara_1_1 starfish in water by Cara_1_1

The geology available right below our cottage was also amazing.  We saw smaller versions of the caves and natural bridges to be seen on the bay islands from our nature cruise boat.

Mount Desert Rock, 25 miles out to sea

Mount Desert Rock, 25 miles out to sea

The two boat trips we took showed us no whales (thus the double trip) but lots of interesting sights and tales.  The official (and unsuccessful) whale watch took us all the way out to an amazing outpost on the continental shelf, Mount Desert Rock, whose intrepid lightkeepers maintained their residental post until the late sixties.  We saw lots of harbor seals and some gray seals there.  Our bonus nature cruise was just as foggy, but lightened by the salacious gossip of our nature guide, a grizzled native who had taught biology for 30 years but seemed much more interested in talking about the various owners of mainland and island properties than locating wildlife.   Bar Harbor history and the development and donation of Acadia represents a fascinating portrait of big money, monster money, and the economies of land use. Pre-income tax money built an large array of mansions, styled (50 room) “cottages” by their wealthy summer inhabitants, but almost all burned in a massive 1947 fire and were never re-built.  Modern billionares still have summer homes, but are likely to cooperate with the nature groups in maintaining the natural habitat around them.  Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi, was founded by George Dorr, a wealthy wilderness lover whose namesake mountain we half-climbed.  He, Rockefeller and others bought the many thousands of park acres one farm at a time.   The pristine, forested small islands we saw on this trip were bare, sheep-mown homesteads well into the twentieth century, and modern conservation acquisitions focus on these .  As commerce disappeared from the coastal waters and tourism rose as the leading industry, the island transformed from fishing and boat-building villages into Acadia-aligned restaurants, campgrounds, motels and services.  There are still plenty of boats and a healthy lobster fishery, which history we explored at a local nature museum and lobster hatchery.

pregnant lobster at Oceanarium

pregnant lobster at Oceanarium

     The main respite we got from tourist crowds ourselves was on the state highways that follow the southwestern portion of the island.  Indian Point was off this road, and we found the prettiest rocky coast at the farthest tip of the island.  Bass Harbor and its historic lighthouse are shown below.

Mount Desert Island is a remnant of mountains that may have been as tall as the Alps, extending 80 miles beyond the current coastline.  The shore is built of granite and metamorphic materials carved and deposited by glaciers up to a mile thick.  The numerous bodies of freshwater are all long, narrow and aligned with the path of the glacier.  We canoed on Long Pond, one of these, and took the pictures below.

     Somes Sound is another of these long bodies of water but opens to the sea, splitting Mount Desert Island up the middle.  Somes Sound is the only fjord on the Atlantic coastline.  A waterfall that feeds it is shown below.

     The trip was adventurous and contemplative, invigorating and still soothing to our teacher souls.  I’ll end with one of the more thrilling sights – a bald eagle perched on the edge of an uninhabited island.  A close-up is at the top of the post.  Please do check the photo albums – many more beautiful sights of Maine.

Maine photo album Part One

Maine photo album Part Two

a wonderful professional set is at


     Who shall describe the inexpressible tenderness and immortal life of the grim forest, where Nature, though it be mid-winter, is ever in her spring, where the moss-grown and decaying trees are not old, but seem to enjoy a perpetual youth; and blissful,  innocent Nature,  like a serene infant , is too happy to make a noise, except by a few tinkling, lisping birds and trickling rills.     Thoreau,  Ktaadn

October 20, 2008

Blue Ridge Parkway and other waypaths

   The Blue Ridge Parkway serves as a ribbon of access to the peaceful grace of both rural and wild scenes in the NC mountains.  The stretch surrounding Doughton Park, where Cara and I camped in August, offers more of the agricultural type.  The Parkway passes through currently used farms, with cows, sheep, goats and small gardens.  Near Doughton Park is Brinegar Cabin, whose old style of mountain farm living was enacted, and thus preserved, well into the 20th century. I posted a set of documentary photos about it at Pecans & Mistletoe, which is fast becoming the home of my explorations into heritage sustainable agriculture as well as a site for extended nature projects of all kinds. The nature images from our trip are on a post at the Raleigh Nature Photo Archive, which, like Pecans & Mistletoe, is a blogspot blog where I load and display most of the pictures for The Natural History of Raleigh, which is the name of my overall nature project and the future book which will culminate the work of these three blogs: Raleigh Nature, the main site, Raleigh Nature Photos, the photo album site, and Pecans & Mistletoe, the nature project site.  Occasionally some piece of all this leaks over into Raleigh Rambles, my personal blog, where I can talk about anything I want.

   Getting back to our mountain trip, we saw a beautiful pair of walking sticks at our campsite on the grassy knob of Doughton Park.  There are campsites at this park where you can walk out your tent, start down the hillside behind you, and go for a day or so before hitting a road.  We took a long hike through a nearby wooded trail and saw lots and lots of mushrooms, as you will see on the photo album.  Below is a particularly lovely grouping of shrooms, moss, and liverworts.

    Brinegar Cabin, which is right on the Parkway, really reminds you of how closely we lived with nature until not so many decades ago.  The Spring House (which is now contaminated by a Park Service outhouse built uphill from it), the naturally cooled food cellar, and the “linsey-wooly” products and cobbling service which generated cash money, all are vivid reminders of a way of life that, at this site, lasted until the 1930’s.  Best of all was the sights and lessons of growing and processing flax, which excites papermakers like ourselves very much.

September 14, 2008

Visual Thoughts

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 2:59 pm

Heavy Skies

Heavy Skies by D L Ennis at Visual Thoughts

 Looks like a painting, right?  But it is a photograph – not mine, of course, but an example of the amazing stuff over at Visual Thoughts, a fellow blog which doesn’t easily mesh with the other resources on my side bar but still belongs and is cherished on my blogroll.  D L Ennis posts about life and art and very much whatever, but if you’re in the mood or have a need to drink in a direct connection with nature, go to this unique blog: nature is there, coming through loud and clear.  Through some very artistic human eyes.

Looking Up

     Here is another image from Visual Thoughts.  The flower had ole D L stumped. Later, when I showed it to Cara she knew exactly what it was and went to look it up.  Meantime, I saw a comment by Jan had identified it as lycoris radiata, or red spider lily.  Cara knew it as outdoor amaryllis, for the single stem’s dramatic (and leafless) emergence.  We didn’t get to have the fun of informing D L , but I found Jan’s blog, which is lovely.  Just one of the wonderful things you may find at D L Ennis’s Visual Thoughts. Check it out!

July 31, 2008

White Squirrels and the Brevard fault: PFI rules!!

Filed under: Exotica, Gems & Surprises, Nature Lore — Tags: , , , , , , — raleighnaturalist @ 7:54 pm


    Teachers in the woods!  Climbing rocks and jumpin’ in waterfalls! That’s what I call a workshop! For 5 very full days, two dozen educators traveled the Land of Waterfalls, centered around the Brevard fault, seeing some amazing geology, flora, and fauna with the staff of, and presenters for, the Pisgah Forest Institute.  We got treated like teacher queens for a day (okay, one other guy besides me as kings in this group of elementary school teachers).  We got free stuff, wonderful information and some great hikes.

teachers in the Little River!

teachers in the Little River!

   The Pisgah Forest Institute is an initiative of Brevard College – a beautiful campus that is ancient as a 2 year college but only 14 years old as a 4 year.  PFI focuses on “the earth and environmental science needs educators encounter in their classrooms. ”  The workshops are funded partly through grants from the USDA Forest Service.  This part of the mountains receives more annual rainfall than anywhere in the continental U.S. except for the Northwest temperate rain forests (or would if there weren’t a severe drought).  There is a unique feel to the wilderness areas and even more so to the farmland, it seemed to me this trip.  Rich, well cultivated fields and not so much the hard scrabble feel you see (disappearing) in the northern section of our mountains.

     The town of Brevard hosts a Music Center, has a nice college/tourist shop and bar scene, and is famous for – did I mention them?, – the white squirrels.  These little guys just blew me away, and set me off on an extended online chase to research white squirrels.  There was a lot to find. The local history traces their origin to an overturned carnival truck in 1949.  There is a research institute devoted to them, a White Squirrel Festival each year in Brevard, and of course a White Squirrel Lover’s blog.  The very best picture I found online is on a realty site, and clearly the white squirrel is a promotion bonanza for the town of Brevard, though their claim to fame is not without controversy (other “homes of the white squirrel”).

on the move

on the move

White Squirrel Photo Album

     The PFI would educate and inform us and then take us on a related field trip.  We made 3 major expeditions: Holmes Educational State Forest, Caeser’s Head State Park, and a new amenity, Dupont State Park, which contains several spectacular waterfalls.  We also conducted a stream activity at the trout hatchery on the Davidson River. Each place offered valuable lessons and experiences.  At Holmes, which is open to the public, we practiced tree i.d. and took the “talking tree” walk.  Caeser’s Head offered spectacular views of the Piedmont vista as seen from the edge of the Blue Ridge system.  So many wonderful pictures – I offer an album at the end of the post, and many of the following text images are linked to a picture.

     The park gots its name from a head-shaped rock that protrudes from the highest viewpoint.  Across the chasm, you see Tablerock Mountain, a monolith of intruded younger rock whose side is painted by the staining action of rainwater.

      Dupont, after a decent hike, offered beautiful waterfall views, including some used in The Last of the Mohicans.  Here the Brevard Fault is in full view, fracturing and pushing til some of the huge blocks become square tree planters.  The Little River winds its way down the rock cascades, though it was quite low the day my pictures were taken.

  The young lady below is leaping from Hooker Falls, another fault-block structure in the park.  We learned some background geology at Caeser’s Head and then put it into action at Dupont, locating the folded layers in a piece of gneiss that represent eons of slow bending pressure.

     Kevin, program director for PFI, holds a northern water snake from the Davidson River.  We measured stream quality parameters and took a tour of the trout hatchery, which attracts vultures from miles around.  Back at the Brevard campus, we saw a stream rehabilitation process and surveyed native as well as invasive plant species on campus.  Below is a picture of hemlock infested with wooly adelgid (the small white spots).  Just one of the many ecological challenges faced in the Southern Appalachian mountains.  Thanks, PFI, for such a great trip and for helping me learn so much! 

PFI Brevard Fault Photo Tour


June 29, 2008

Ranging the Piedmont

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 11:20 pm

This post was originally published on June 21, 2008

Haven’t posted, haven’t been on the greenway. Been furiously finishing up my school year, doing some arts writing, and starting a new personal blog. And now I’m off for 5 days to the mountains. Doing a big environmental education workshop at the Pisgah Forest Institute in Brevard. Once I get back, I’ll be posting more often.

On my way to the mountains, I will traverse this widest section of the eastern U.S. Piedmont, which stretches 225 miles from Raleigh to the scarp of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At Morganton, I will travel just north of the South Mountains, which are significant, “real” mountains but not part of the Blue Ridge system at all. They are monadnocks, outcrops of rock even more ancient than the Appalachians, which have withstood the millions of years of erosion and flattening that produced the Piedmont. They look decidedly odd in the midst of the Piedmont’s gentle swells, as I hope you will get some idea of, below.

These are from south of the South Mountains, off the 64 route rather than 40. Below is the development just beginning within sight of this peak. My drive on State Road 10 and 64 reminded me that it is not just near the big cities that Piedmont vistas are filling up with homes and shopping centers.

Below is a scene from South Mountain State Park, which was closed due to being completely filled the Memorial Day Monday I went. Another trip we will explore the unique granite faces associated with these Piedmont mountains.


The Continental Divide at Interstate 40

After the South Mountains, I will drive through the Piedmont watershed of the Catawba River, then begin the climb up to the valley of the Swannanoah River, which runs from Black Mountain to Asheville. At Ridgecrest, I will cross the Continental Divide. Water falling to the east goes to the Catawba and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. Water falling west of the crest will go north via the French Broad, find the Little Tennessee, and eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico. As a child at Camp Ridgecrest, a summer facility of the Baptist Conference there, I learned this fact standing on a mountain ridge, where we were invited to spit in alternate directions and imagine the geographic adventures of our saliva. It was, truly, an unforgettable moment, and one of many that shaped me into a naturalist.

The state-published geological guide to Interstate 40, using mileposts, instructs you to look at this dark rock at the top of the incline, which is part of the Blue Ridge, and compare it to the lighter rockfaces in the roadcuts at the botttom. I tried – safely – but pictures of those lighter rocks will have to wait for a safer scenario than Memorial Day weekend!

I’ll see you again before July 4th! Have a great one!


December 29, 2007

Exotica – outposts & travel

Filed under: Exotica, Nature Lore — Tags: , , , — raleighnaturalist @ 11:10 pm


If only this were Raleigh!  I’m a real stick in the mud, but Cara gets me out whenever she can.  This is east of Seattle, where we spent last spring break, and this waterfall has a power generating plant carved into the rock behind it that generates enough electricity for a town or two.  Below are two fully humanized photos that reside best in this section for nifty odds and ends. The Miami-phase corn snake is characterized by white more than yellow background tones and is posed on The Fletcher Academy’s baby grand.  My nine year old common snapper is peering from her tank.





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