Sunday, January 19, 2020

North Carolina State Parks: Jones Lake & Singletary Lake

Jones Lake State Park & Singletary Lake State Park – 3/22/19 – 4 miles

As the crow flies, it’s 500 miles from the western end of North Carolina to its eastern Outer banks. The state’s signature trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, takes a meandering scenic route for about 1,175 miles. The Friends group that supports the MST holds an Annual Gathering, historically located in the central or western parts of the state.  In 2019 the Gathering went east to spotlight all great things being accomplished at the coast. I attended to support the FMST, to hear what’s new (there’s always something new) and for the opportunity to pass through a couple of counties and see some NC state parks I haven’t visited. Surf City, here I come!

I left home in the early morning for the 3-hour drive to Bladen County – a county that’s had some unflattering notoriety in recent national political news. But what else is in Bladen County? Jones Lake and Singletary Lake State Parks.

Before continuing, help yourself by reading about Carolina bay lakes. I did not know one thing about this geographical phenomenon prior to this trip. Bay lakes can be found in coastal states from New Jersey to Florida. Fashioned by melting glaciers, the bay lakes have existed for millenia, but their uniform elliptical shapes were just revealed in the 1930’s with the arrival of aerial photography. Their shapes are oriented northwest to southeast, are not fed by streams or springs (just rainfall and runoff) and are only about 10 feet deep. [How do you suppose they are being affected by climate change?]

First stop: Jones Lake State Park in Elizabethtown, NC, has an amazing visitor center with an extensive exhibit room featuring Carolina bays. [Fact: most bay lakes are less than 500 feet long; Jones Lake is 8,000 feet long.] 

In the visitor center exhibit 

The park’s amenities include hiking trails, RV camping and group camping, bath houses, playing fields, a boat ramp, a fishing pier, a nice big picnic area between the VC and the lakeshore, and a roped-off area for swimming. How great that water must feel on a steamy summer day!

More information at the park’s website here. 

Today, however, there was a blustery wind to temper the full sun and I needed my fleece jacket for a little walk. The amenities are oriented on the southeastern side of Jones Lake, but the park acreage also contains Salters Lake. Hiking trails include the Bay Trail going all the way around Jones Lake (4 miles), Salters Lake Trail connecting Jones Lake and Salters Lake (accessed halfway around the Bay Trail) and the Cedar Loop Trail (starts at the right side of the VC, connects to the Bay Trail). [Fun fact: Salters Lake is named for Sallie Salter, a woman who spied on Tories encamped in Elizabethtown during the Revolutionary War.]

Park trail map



My time was limited so I opted for the Cedar Loop Trail, going counterclockwise. Flat (of course), sandy, and at times softened with pine needles, the trail starts out in view of the lake before turning right and away. For some distance it is out of sight of the shoreline altogether and felt very closed in (intimate?)

Be patient… there’s a little bench and an inspiring view. I ate my lunch and contemplated peace as the tannic-stained water lapped at the shore.

The loop trail bends back toward the visitor center and again leaves sight of the water – but look at the charming Carolina jessamine blooms scattered along the trail. The vines climbed up into the trees.

As I walked out on the boat pier, the wind was asserting itself, making the water choppy and intimidating, a bottomless deep blue. Ain’t nobody canoeing today.

Second stop: Singletary Lake State Park in Kelly, NC, less than 20 minutes down the road from 
Jones Lake State Park

Singletary Lake has a similar natural history but a different human history. After hundreds of years of individual subsistence farming, the state determined that all bay lakes should be owned by the state rather than private parties. In 1936, Singletary Lake was developed by the federal National Park Service as a CCC project to demonstrate recreation, education and conservation of natural resources. Basically it created two group camps totaling 10 cabins, an infirmary, a dining and recreation hall, a workshop, canoes and a swim area and pier. They are available for reservation by nonprofit organizations. [Fun fact: the group camps are named Camp Loblolly Bay and Camp Ipecac.]
More information on the park website here. 

Singletary Lake SP doesn’t have a visitor center and the tiny park office appeared closed. A maintenance man saw me in the parking area and gave me a brochure with very useful information and a park map. I strolled around for a little self-orientation, admiring the massive and majestic longleaf pines.

Larger than Jones Lake but with a similar 4-mile circumference, Singletary is the deepest Carolina bay lake at a whopping 12 feet.  There’s only one hiking trail, the one-mile CCC Loop Trail, so no decision-making on what I should do. Like the Cedar Loop Trail at Jones Lake, it’s an easy walk.

Wind still gusting, water still churning. And how would you describe that blue hue? 
Royal, cerulean, Prussian, ultramarine, cobalt…

North Carolina’s natural beauty is not limited to its extreme west and east. The Carolina bay phenomenon is a vital part of the state’s ecosystem and I’m glad I discovered it! Thank you to the state park system for preserving, protecting and inviting us to learn and appreciate these natural wonders.

"A lake is a landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature." ~Henry David Thoreau
“This couldn’t be just a lake. No real water was ever blue like that.”  Dorothy Maywood Bird

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Benton MacKaye Trail in the Smokies: Raven Fork Campsite 47 to Smokemont Campground

Benton MacKaye Trail: Smokies Backpack Day 3 - 3/18/19 – 8.7 Miles

This morning Chris reported a temperature of 31 degrees. The air was only 6 degrees warmer than the previous night, but my tent added a few more and I slept much more comfortably. I wore the same base layers, my lightweight gloves, didn’t need my purple puffy coat or teal fleece, and used my neck gaiter for my ears/head instead of my headband and Liberty hat.

BUT…this was my first time out with my new Lightheart Gear tent and I was a little disappointed. Staking the tent properly is crucial, and the outer fly sagged to touch the mesh, getting moisture from condensation at the end where my face was. I’ll have to keep working on the staking. Otherwise I loved the tent construction, design and light weight. It allows me to sleep with my backpack inside and not feel crowded.

The plan was reveille at 7:00, step off at 8:00. I woke up at 7:05, still dark out. My morning habit is to get dressed, pack up my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and clothes sack, toss them outside the tent door before I emerge into the world. I was out of the tent by 7:30 a.m., daylight touching the mountaintops. The creek was roaring as it had through the night and would long after we were gone. No heating water for breakfast, just brown bread with Justin’s almond butter. I stuffed my damp tent into its sack and strapped it onto the outside of my pack. No worries – I’ll spread it out in the back of my car to dry on the drive home.

I headed out first to tackle the 2.7-mile, 1,300-foot uphill (of course) as Enloe Creek Trail climbs out of Raven Fork Gorge.  About a quarter-mile past Campsite 47, the trail turns way from Raven Fork and starts up the Enloe Creek drainage (thus the trail name, even though the campsite is on Raven Fork). At that point the robust whitewater of Enloe Creek was on my left-hand side.

We were aware that about a mile from Campsite 47 there’s a knee-deep creek crossing of Enloe Creek (once bridged by a foot log, long gone now). We wanted to all be together for the crossing, thus my early start. Timed out perfectly; as I was removing my boots at the water’s edge, my friends rounded the bend.

Chris waded right through the creek in his boots, but Nancy and Lane and I changed to water shoes. Our anticipation of freezing water helped and it didn’t feel too bad at all.  Somebody got photos of everybody crossing. 

Not too scary, I can see my duck feet

From this viewpoint - yikes!

Here comes Nancy

Safe on the other side, we dried off, laced up, and started again with me back in last place where I was happy. Enloe Creek was now on the right-hand side, still loud and feisty.

The climb got tougher but wasn’t as daunting, proving that it’s mostly a head game: my adventure is ending today. At the junction with Hughes Ridge Trail I turned left, walked half a mile and reached Chasteen Creek Trail.  That little half-mile quirk is not clear on the Smokies dollar trail map, but there it is.

Chasteen Creek Trail started out as my favorite trail variety, a smooth surface winding in and out of small coves.  I was tripping along with a light heart (pun intended).  Then fist-sized rocks began to appear underfoot and the trail widened, showing its true nature as an old roadbed covered in rocks that slowed me down. Sometimes steep, sometimes gentler, but still rocky as all get-out, I finished the 4.1 miles in under 2 hours. The last 1,000 miles on Bradley Fork Trail to Smokemont Campground was flat and long. For those of you keeping score, I counted the .3 miles through the parking lot to my car.

Are we there yet??

My friends were already settling in at a campsite, tents pitched, evaluating their resupply food before going into Cherokee for a big lunch. I’d debated all morning about whether I would join them.  Facing four hours in the car, though, I decided to go on home. As we all hugged goodbye I was a teeny bit sad that they were continuing on their big adventure – but I was sure happy to not be hiking up a mountain again in the morning.

The drive home was déjà vu from my Smokies 900 challenge, overwhelmed with nostalgia for those days of discovery.  I felt ultra relaxed, rotating through my CD’s for music that I hadn’t heard in a while. The pain of the climbs was already receding (happens every time – why don’t I trust it yet?) I do have some reflections to ponder, though, because my body is older and I cannot do the things I could do 20 or even 10 years ago.  I can mourn for it or accept it and hike on at my unique pace. 

"I dream of hiking into my old age. I want to be able even then to pack my load and take off slowly but steadily along the trail.” ~Marlyn Dolan