Hanging Rock State Park to expand with transfer of former 4-H camp

The lodge, once known as Cheshire Hall, was built in the 1890s.

The lodge, once known as Cheshire Hall, was built in the 1890s as the centerpiece of a resort.

Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County will expand with the addition of a former 4-H camp on 716 acres, following action by the N.C. General Assembly in its 2014 session.

Operations of the former Camp Sertoma 4-H Education Center,  also known as the Vade Mecum Springs property with Moore Springs Campground, will be folded into those of the state park. Specifically, the legislation authorizes the N.C. Department of Administration to transfer the property for inclusion in the state parks system.

Vade Mecum Springs is a Stokes County landmark, having been developed in the 1890s as a resort. It was operated as a retreat and summer camp by the Episcopal Diocese and Easter Seals until its acquisition by North Carolina State University in 1981 for its 4-H program. (Sertoma clubs were directly involved with that acquisition.) The Vade Mecum facilities include a 398-acre campground complex with nine miles of mountain biking trails and access on the Dan River, a lodge, recreation hall, swimming pool, 13 cabins, equestrian barn and trails, chapel and athletic fields. The property is located about one-half mile northwest of the state park boundary across Moore Springs Road.

“The Vade Mecum Springs property is a tremendous recreational and educational asset and will give a new dimension to one of our oldest and most beloved state parks,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “In true North Carolina tradition, members of the community initiated and supported this addition to the park, and that interest and energy will allow the camp to continue to contribute to the fabric of the community and the economic health of the region.”

Interior of one of the camp's cabins.

Interior of one of the camp’s cabins.

The Friends of Sauratown Mountains, which supports both Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks, the Stokes County Board of Commissioners, the Stokes County Economic Development Commission, and other community leaders approached the state parks system about a potential transfer soon after a decision was made in late 2013 to close four of the state’s six 4-H camps, including Vade Mecum Springs. The group persuaded the local legislative delegation to introduce the transfer legislation.

In coming months, the state parks system will begin a detailed assessment of the property and its facilities and begin development of a long-range management plan for reopening those facilities that can contribute to the state park’s mission. Friends of Sauratown Mountains is developing volunteer resources to assist the state park.

The Vade Mecum Springs property has a long history. Entrepreneurs John Sparks and J. Cicero Tise developed Vade Mecum Springs at the turn of the 20th Century as a resort revolving around the healthful Moore Springs. Vade Mecum is Latin for “go with me,” and local history suggests the businessmen borrowed the name from a legend involving a Saura American Indian princess and her lover. In recent decades, nonprofit organizations relied on the camp for summer programs, and the state park often referred visitors to Moore Springs Campground when its campground was full.

Getting hiking boots on the ground at Mount Jefferson

(The following was submitted by Cameron Tingkang, an AmeriCorps team member.)

A team with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), an AmeriCorps program, is working with New River State Park to supervise and conduct trail construction at Mountain Jefferson State Natural Area.

moje_nccc

The intent of the team of AmeriCorps members is to add three miles of new trail at Mount Jefferson.

For seven weeks, eight team members will work alongside local volunteer groups and individual volunteers to build trail segments on the mountain. The team, Delta 1, will help preserve and protect examples of natural beauty as well as provide outdoor recreation activities in a safe environment. The team aims to add three miles to the existing trail system at the park and double the length of any other existing trail systems in the county.

“Having the AmeriCorps NCCC team has been a tremendous asset. They are progressing well with the trail project and have demonstrated some amazing trail-building skills,” said Joe Shimel, superintendent of New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area. “This is a hard working team that is providing the grit and boots on the ground needed to get this trail open in the near future.”

The Delta 1 NCCC team is based in Vicksburg, Miss., but consists of members from all over the country. After completing their work with the state parks, members will return to Vicksburg for several days before deploying to their next project.

AmeriCorps NCCC is a full-time, residential service program in which 1,200 young adults serve nationwide each year. During their 10-month term, corps members work on teams of eight to 12 on projects that address critical needs related to natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, and urban and rural development.

Popular kids’ TRACK trails finding eastern routes

The inaugural hike along  Eno River's TRACK trail was all about discovering nature.

The inaugural hike along Eno River’s TRACK trail was all about discovering nature.

TRACK trails for kids are spreading east.

The state parks system opened its 17th, 18th and 19th TRACK trails last week at Eno River, Lumber River and Singletary Lake state parks. The goal is to open at least 30 within the next few years.

The TRACK trails and the Kids in Parks program were launched in 2009 by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. Their mission is to lure young children outdoors with the promise of adventure on self-guided hikes with parents and other adults. The trails are easy and short with colorful signs and brochures. The program also has an online component, where children can log their adventures and earn prizes.

The idea was a natural fit for state parks, and most western parks quickly adapted short trails or portions of longer trails as TRACK trails. The program has expanded to seven states and the 100th TRACK trail opens this month on the Blue Ridge Parkway where it all began.

A new TRACK trail at Singletary Lake drew a crowd of campers.

A new TRACK trail at Singletary Lake State Park drew a crowd of campers.

Importantly, the Kids in Parks Website also prepares kids for a lifetime of hiking, with tips on planning for a hike, dressing properly, packing the necessities and choosing the right trail. All the information on the program is here.

NCYCC tackles projects at six state parks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo teams of teens have been hard at work improving state parks in eastern and western North Carolina this summer.

The teens are members of the North Caroline Youth Conservation Corps (NCYCC) and have been literally mending fences at six state parks as well as building trails, improving campsites, repairing facilities and pulling out invasive plants. Similar teams are at work for public agencies in the Salisbury area and in the Triangle.

NCYCC members improve canoe-in campsites at Pilot Mountain State Park.

NCYCC members improve canoe-in campsites at Pilot Mountain State Park.

“We are delighted to get more young people connected to our state parks,” said Carol Tingley, deputy director for the state parks system. “The Youth Conservation Corps offers young people an outstanding opportunity to learn about our state’s treasured natural resources while they work to preserve our state parks’ recreation opportunities, natural scenery and wildlife habitat.”

One crew of eight has been working at Carolina Beach and Cliffs of the Neuse state parks and Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, with the second crew working at Stone Mountain and Pilot Mountain state parks and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area. In most cases, the teens are camping at the parks (though Hurricane Arthur did drive them into the visitor center at Carolina Beach for a night).

The NCYCC is sponsored primarily by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and participating agencies. The program uses the natural world as a platform for teaching job and leadership skills, service, stewardship and personal responsibility. Crews work eight hours a day, five days a week and are paid minimum wage. Each workday includes a one-hour educational program on conservation and social topics.

“The NCYCC is built on the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC),” said Jan Pender, director. “Like those who served in the CCC decades ago, NCYCC crew members learn valuable job skills as they work on high quality and cost effective projects that expand public access to our state’s public lands.”

A fire ring area at Pilot Mountain State Park gets some attention from one of 16 NCYCC members in the parks.

A fire ring area at Pilot Mountain State Park gets some attention from one of 16 NCYCC members in the parks.

That’s fitting since the CCC  is credited with creating much of the early state parks system in North Carolina beginning in the 1930s. Through CCC projects, five state parks were added to the two that existed at that time.

This is the second year of NCYCC involvement in the parks and its role has been much expanded. In 2013, crews did construction and maintenance on the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail and removed invasive species at Eno River State Park.

Park’s canoes help re-introduce community to Mayo River

The Town of Mayodan is named for the Mayo and Dan Rivers, but even for residents, the Mayo River must sometimes seem a mysterious presence. It flashes briefly through the dense woods at highway overpasses, and must be sought out with some effort, like a friendly-but-shy uncle at family reunions.

The Mayo River offers enough fast water to make a trip interesting.

The Mayo River offers enough fast water to make even a short paddling trip interesting.

So the staff at Mayo River State Park is making a determined effort to re-introduce people to the namesake river in western Rockingham County and reveal its obvious potential as an outdoor destination by staging canoe trips on the waterway.

It’s not easy. The state park has 2,187 acres spread among 12 tracts from the Virginia-North Carolina border south to Mayodan, but as yet, there are no suitable, dedicated paddling access points on park property, said Superintendent Keith Martin. Though he’s confident that land for good access will eventually be secured, for the time being, Martin and his employees face complicated logistics for the one-hour and five-hour canoe trips they offer. Those depend on the good will of landowners that allow the park to use riverfront property in limited ways and the towns of Mayodan and Madison (which maintains the only formal paddling access on the river).

Access to the Mayo River requires careful logistics/

Access to the Mayo River requires careful logistics.

Pickups and drop-offs for the trips demand some coordinated effort of the small staff and even park visitors. For example, the final stretch involves paddling upriver on the Dan a short ways to reach the Madison takeout point. That can be a bit of a struggle for inexperienced paddlers, so Martin has devised an “emergency” takeout on private land for those who need it.

But it’s all worth it. For much of the warm months, the Mayodan is a low-flow river offering shallow, fast-water stretches that excite the newbie paddler, heavy shade with cooling breezes and a sense of absolute solitude in the heart of the community. For long stretches, there are no buildings, houses or backyards facing the river. Its water is clear and clean and one of the reasons the Mayo was handpicked as a potential state park site.

“It takes about as long to get ready for these trips as it does to float them,” Martin said. “But, it’s important to get people onto the river in some fashion. That’s what the state park is all about.”

Mayo River State Park was authorized by the legislature in 2003 at the request of the state parks system and opened its first interim facilities in 2010 at the site of the Old Mayo Park – a beloved former community recreation site created in 1948 by Washington Mills, Mayodan’s principal employer decades ago. The site’s small lakes have become a venue for a popular family fishing day each year.

Martin guesses he has introduced about 50 people to the river using the canoe trips, and most have been local residents, some of whom may have never splashed in its waters before. Outdoor outfitters are eager to get more recreational paddlers from Triad population centers only an hour’s drive away.

Information about the paddling trips and other programs at Mayo River State Park can be found here.

Learning how to improve rare mountain bogs

Mountain bogs are among the most rare and most fragile ecosystems anywhere in the U.S. Though they are home to some very rare species, such as Gray’s lily and the mountain bog turtle, not very much is known about exactly how these small, high-elevation wetlands work.

Pineola bog produces variety of plants after careful thinning process.

Pineola bog produces a variety of plants in early spring after careful thinning process.

So, naturalists with the state parks system are taking a very methodical approach to managing the bogs – and getting impressive early results.

The parks system has three bogs in western North Carolina that are designated state natural areas – Pineola Bog, Beech Creek Bog and Sugar Mountain Bog – and so joined the Bog Learning Network, a collaboration of scientists from state and federal agencies and private conservation groups that manage bogs. The group adopted a “no regrets” philosophy to take some cautious action to improve the habitats.

“Basically, it’s an ecological version of ‘do no harm,’” said western region biologist Marshall Ellis. “You take some judicious management actions and then wait to see if they work. If so, you move ahead. If not, then you reconsider. Mostly, you just make sue that whatever you’re doing is something that the ecosystem is resilient enough to withstand.”

"Before" photo shows woody alders shutting out most other plants,

“Before” photo shows woody alders shutting out most other plants.

At Pineola Bog, that meant removing much of the alder, a woody plant that seemed to be shading out some of the more fragile plants. It was simple but pretty laborious work by biologists and the staff from Elk Knob State Park in Watauga County, the unit responsible for routine management of the area. They chose a portion of the 91-acre bog that had already been altered somewhat by a long-gone gravel mining operation. As spring crept into the mountains, the difference was startling. More varied plant life sprang from the spongy soil, including an abundance of fringed phacelia blossoms that had not been seen before. Ellis said the next step is to expand the alder thinning effort into other management zones.

For these dogs, turtle hunt is a shell game

turtledogs1At the command, “Findturtlefindturtlefindturtle,” Jenny Ren and Mink thrashed through the underbrush at Eno River State Park Saturday with singular determination and an unbounded joy in the chase.

In just a bit over 30 minutes, Mink returned, carefully carrying a box turtle in his jaws and obviously pleased with himself. He dropped it at the feet of John Rucker, rewarded only with impressed comments from about a dozen park visitors who witnessed the demonstration.

Rucker and Boykin spaniels search for turtles in heavy brush,

Rucker and Boykin spaniels search for turtles in heavy brush,

The two Boykin spaniels are from a pack of 10 that Rucker has trained to find box turtles. Rucker brought the good-natured dogs from his Greensboro home to a reptile and amphibian program at the park and they were the stars of the event.

Bird hunting with one of the spaniels years ago, Rucker discovered that they have a natural talent for finding the reclusive turtles and could be easily trained using scented, fiberglass turtle shells. Some have theorized that the “scent trail” left by a traveling turtle somewhat resembles the scent of game birds. At any rate, the dogs consider a turtle hunt just great sport.

For biologists, it’s more than sport. Populations of the eastern box turtle are declining everywhere and no one is sure why, although loss of habitat likely figures into it. In many eastern and midwestern states, including North Carolina, box turtle studies have begun in earnest. Outdoor lovers have been invited to get involved in “citizen science” projects by reporting box turtle encounters. At Eno River, a box turtle study was launched by the Eno River Association. On Saturday, naturalist Kat Walston was on hand to measure, weigh and mark the turtles found by the spaniels as part of that effort.

Naturalist Kat Walston gets help measuring box turtle for study sponsored by the Eno River Association

Naturalist Kat Walston gets help measuring box turtle for a study sponsored by the Eno River Association.

Rucker has carried his dogs as far afield as Wisconsin, where a similar decline in ornate box turtles has researchers worried. In Illinois, the dogs have tracked turtles that are battling a mysterious virus, and in Tennessee, they’ve helped study how well box turtles can survive heavy logging operations. A keen observer can learn much from the success – or failure – of a turtle hunt, Rucker told the park visitors. “You have to learn how turtles behave in order to learn how to protect them.”

Information about North Carolina’s citizen science effort to track box turtle populations can be found here.

AmeriCorps member prods landowners to help protect New River

(Submitted by Abby Van de Bogert, AmeriCorps program director in the N.C. Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs.)

Darius Pollard, is one of several AmeriCorps members serving at North Carolina state parks this summer and clearly embodies the organization’s pledge to “get things done.”

Cleared riverbank is scenic, but natural areas with heavy vegetation to more to protect water quality

Cleared riverbank is scenic, but natural areas with heavy vegetation do more to protect water quality.

As Pollard began his term of service at New River State Park, he saw an opportunity to educate the public in a way that would benefit the park and the river. The park regularly monitors riparian conservation easements along the waterway’s south fork, designated a national Wild and Scenic River. These easements often serve as riparian buffers – riverbank property protected from development, which helps maintain water quality.

As the park monitored these areas, they found some properties had been clear-cut and mowed, reducing the buffers’ ability to protect the river. Unfortunately, the park had no resources to reach out and educate the landowners or to assist in restoring the riparian buffers.

Pollard developed a campaign to reach out to these landowners, writing letters to those whose easements were in need of restoration, describing the benefits of natural riparian buffer zones and the environmental consequences of clearing those areas. “The biggest surprise was the feedback I received from sending the letters,” he said. “I got seven calls within the first week and a half, and everyone wanted to learn more.”

AmeriCorps member Darius Pollard

AmeriCorps member Darius Pollard

Through a partnership with the nonprofit National Committee for the New River, Pollard arranged for funding to share the cost of restoration with the landowners. Pollard now meets regularly with the organization’s restoration director, Lynn Caldwell, to review property conditions and to help create land management plans and cost estimates for landowners interested in restoring their riparian buffers.

Since sending the letters in early May, Pollard has already had four landowners begin the voluntary restoration. More property restorations are in the design and approval process. “I halfway expected landowners to be upset that I was trying to tell them what do with their own property,” Pollard said, “And in a way, I wouldn’t blame them. In this case, however, everyone is downstream. “

Friends group grants turn into creative state park projects

In coming months, state parks will be dreaming up some creative ways to use grants being made available by the statewide Friends of State Parks (FSP). A combination of additional funding for the grant program and tighter budgets for the state parks system have made the FSP grants more valuable than ever.

An FSP grant helps stage a paddle festival at Hammocks Beach.

An FSP grant helps stage a popular paddle festival at Hammocks Beach State Park.

Modest, one-time grants from the FSP program improve the North Carolina state parks experience in some surprising ways. An FSP grant augmented by funds from the Eno River Association allowed Eno River State Park to add a lifelike display of a coyote, an animal increasingly common in that area. FSP funds will match those raised by Friends of Crowders Mountain State Park to support the annual festival at that “Park of the Year.” Hammocks Beach State Park’s paddle festival, partially funded by an FSP grant, will offer visitors the opportunity to get out on the water in what is becoming an international event supported by the American Canoe Association and involving the British Canoe Union.

A coyote mount was added at Eno River State Park with FSP grant help.

A coyote mount was added at Eno River State Park with FSP grant help.

Morrow Mountain State Park will rebuild a dry-stacked stone wall that once served proudly at the entrance. Native argillite, once quarried in the park, was used by the Civilian Conservation Corps to fashion the wall in 1940. The result will be more than just wall construction; it will be building an organization of volunteers as Friends of Morrow Mountain contribute both funding and physical effort in the restoration.

With three quarters of 2014 remaining, the Friends of State Parks Grants Disbursement Committee is inviting ideas from park staffs, and said it expects to have opportunity support more projects.

National Trails Day in NC meant new, innovative trails

Lake James State Park opened 15 miles of mountain biking trails.

Lake James opened 15 miles of mountain biking trails.

National Trails Day Saturday in North Carolina’s state parks was seasoned by the introduction of several new and innovative trails.

At Lake James State Park, more than 50 mountain bikers came to inaugurate 15 miles of newly built biking trails at the park’s Paddy’s Creek Access. Seconds after a ribbon was cut at 9 a.m., bikers streamed onto a four-mile, beginner-loop trail and an 11-mile intermediate loop built by a contractor with help from park staff (which built three of the trail’s four bridges) and volunteers, many from the Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance. The project, including a new parking area, represents an investment of $210,000 from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The trails, which are also open to hikers in good weather, will help make the Paddy’s Creek Area of Lake James a year-round destination, complementing an extensive swim beach, bathhouse and picnic grounds opened in 2010.

Kids helped dedicated a new TRACK Trail at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Kids helped dedicated a new TRACK Trail at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

A new TRACK Trail designed to get kids outdoors was dedicated at Grandfather Mountain State Park on the eve of Trails Day. The one-mile section of the Profile Trail was turned into a self-guided, kid-friendly trail designed for exploration. Pilot Mountain and William B. Umstead state parks celebrated new trail segments that help connect those parks with other trail assets in their communities. A “volksmarch” along a new section of Raleigh Greenway opened the connection between the city’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation and Umstead. The Friends of Sauratown Mountain were largely responsible for a newly relocated and rehabbed trail along Horne Creek and the Yadkin River at Pilot Mountain State Park. This is part of a larger trail network envisioned for the Sauratown Mountain region.

In all, the state parks system held more than two dozen events for the day. Volunteers appeared at a number of parks to improve existing trails and build new ones, including Elk Knob, Crowders Mountain and Lake Norman. And, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail held workdays at several locations along the 1,000-mile route.

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