Tuesday, October 7, 2014

SCNC Ramble, October 1, 2014

A Walking History of the Sandy Creek Nature Center, with Dr. Walter “Walt” Cook

Nine participants, including the leader, Dr. Walter “Walt” Cook, met at the Sandy Creek Nature Center Education and Visitor Center for a walk, led by Dr. Cook, along several of the center’s trails.  We started at 9:00 a.m. and were treated to a history of the center, as we walked the trails, wrapping up with coffee, pie and chocolate chip banana bread back at the Education and Visitor Center when we were through walking.  Here is a summary of the walk, along with observations made along the way.

This report was written by Don Hunter; Click here to see Don's photo album of the walk.

We left the Visitor and Education Center (VEC) and headed across the North Oconee River Greenway and entered the trail system behind the Allen House.  At the information kiosk behind the Allen House, Dr. Cook provided some historical perspective regarding the center, from the initial days, when a relatively small group, which included Dr. Cook, conceived the idea of a nature center, but was not financially able to get the idea off the ground.  The City of Athens, with a parks and recreation program, rolled the center into their parks and recreation system and eventually, after the city and county governments were consolidated, Athens – Clarke County to cover ownership and management of the now called Sandy Creek Nature Center (SCNC).

Pine Ridge and Cook’s Trail:
Passing through the split rail fence behind the Allen House, we walked a short distance on the Pine Ridge Trail and turned left onto Cook’s Trail, named for Dr. Cook.  Dr. Cook mentioned that much of the SCNC property, particularly in the vicinity of the Allen House, was sharecropped  by the Thurmond family, from which came Michael Thurmond, who served in the Georgia legislature and  was later elected Labor Commissioner of the State of Georgia.
We made our way along Cook’s Trail to the “bottoms” and along the way found several nice mushrooms, including a nice oyster mushroom, spectacularly back lit by the still rising morning sun.

Screech Owl Trail:
The first observation after turning onto the Screech Owl Trail was the vast, grassy bottoms.  This area was originally heavily overgrown with privet but the USDA/U. S. Forest Service conducted a very effective privet eradication program, removing nearly all of the privet from the bottom.  The success of the program was somewhat bittersweet as, after the privet was eradicated, it was replaced by Japanese stilt grass, another invasive, which presents its own set of problems.   Woodlands grass was also seen along the trail here.
Leaving the bottoms, the trail parallels a gully, once filled with all variety of household waste and trash.  This trash was dumped in the time before garbage pickup in the area and most has been removed by volunteer efforts.
At the Kestral Trail junction, we remained on the Screech Owl Trail, turning right towards the northern extent of the Claypit Pond and Hwy 441.  Right after turning we saw more mushrooms, including a beautiful, white capped mushroom (unidentified). 
We stopped so that Dr. Cook could describe the geological importance of the ridges located at various points along the SCNC trail system.  The ridges are present because they were resistant to erosion by Sandy Creek as it, over time, moved around in the bottoms.    He also discussed the presence of invasive plants along the trail, including several species of eleagnus, normally found on the higher ground, and privet, which is more prominent in the wet bottoms.  We saw both of the plants together in the transitional zone between the higher ground and the creek bottom land.  A large white mulberry was also seen at this location.
At this point we talked about the old roads in the area that ran through the property, including one of the original roads to Commerce, then known as Harmony Grove.  We all wondered why a town with such a beautiful name would change it to Commerce.  Our only conclusion was that it was an ill conceived  effort to promote the town as a location for business and industry.  I’ve got to say, I like Harmony Grove much better!  We soon came back to the Cook’s Trail, at the point where it leaves the SCNC to end, four miles to the north, at Sandy Creek Park.

Cook’s Trail:
Soon after turning to the right on to the Cook’s Trail, Dr. Cook told us of the building of the short section of boardwalk we see now on the trail, constructed to span a short stretch of wet, black, slimy bottomland clay.  This boardwalk was funded, in part, by the monetary prize ($200) that came with the Alec Little Award Dr. Cook had just received.  It took another $600 to complete the boardwalk.  It was constructed, with volunteer labor, on MLK Day, before MLK Day became recognized as a day of volunteering.  He pointed out that after the boardwalk was completed, the area was flooded with eight feet of water, raising the boardwalk from its anchors and moving it about three feet.  Thankfully, the nearby trees kept it from floating off down the creek.
Moving on, Dr. Cook pointed out two huge pine trees, approximately 30 inches in diameter.  They were located on one of the old boundary lines and the reason the pines grew so large was that trees were generally allowed to grow along boundary lines, allowing them to escape harvest. 
Hooded Warbler Trail:
We turned left off of the Cook’s Trail on to the Hooded Warbler Trail, heading back out into the bottom, once again, seeing the broad patches of Japanese stilt grass, where once was found thick privet.  He also pointed out a pine stump, the remaining evidence of a once tremendous pine tree, at 44 inches in diameter.  At the time it was cut down, it was not on park property but Dr. Cook didn’t think that it would be targeted by the loggers for removal   Had he known of its fate, he would have, if possible, bought the tree to save it from the loggers.  While lamenting its demise, he did say that, had it been saved, it would probably be on the forest floor rotting now, nature taking its course.
Here we also saw one of the largest trees found at the center, a massively large water oak with a huge crown.  Willow oak, with its long and narrow leaves, can be more massive than the water oaks but Dr. Cook has not seen any large ones at the SCNC.  He did point out though, that large ones can be seen at Scull Shoals, southeast of Athens.

Pine Ridge Trail:
We took a right off of the Hooded Warbler Trail on to the connector trail up the hill to the Pine Ridge Trail and turned left.   Our first stop was a rocky patch of ground where, in the spring, one can view trilliums growing among the rocks, as well as toothwort growing along the trail.  The trilliums, along with some Carolina rhododendron, were transplanted from the Savannah River Basin, at the location of Lake Thurmond, before the reservoir was allowed to fill.   This was a joint effort by the State Botanical Garden and botanist from UGA to salvage several plant species.  The rhododendron was planted at the Log House.  Hugh pointed out partridge berry and wondered if they came with the trilliums and Dr. Cook indicated that these were not part of the transplanting project.  Trilliums were probably originally found at many locations at the SCNC but at some locations were a victim of cotton farming and were plowed out of existence.
We left the littlerocky area and made our way south along the Pine Ridge Trail to the wooden stairs down to the Claypit Pond.  We stopped here, where Dr. Cook pointed out a round poplar log post next to the stairs, with the number eight carved into its sloping top.  He told us that posts such as this, numbering about eighteen, were used to identify observation locations, by number, all through the SCNC trails.  Only a few remain today as reminders of the early days of the center.

Not far from the wooden stairs, Dr. Cook pointed out a large area between the trail and the slope down to the Claypit Pond, which was particularly devoid of invasive or undesirable plants.  Some years back, a young lady from UGA, studying botany, organized an effort she called “Plant Killer Days” to systematically remove all of the unwanted vegetation.  It remains relatively clear to this day, although nandina is becoming more prevalent each year, not only at this plot, but throughout the center.

From the Crossridge Trail crossing, we proceeded along the Pine Ridge Trail on what used to be an old logging road towards Walker Hall and the old Brick Factory, which are located on what was the first land acquisition for the nature center.  The property was purchased with a recreation grant which required that there be two shelters, toilets, picnic tables and other amenities on the developed property.   Walker Hall was one of the required shelters and the other was a basic, open sided shed, which technically met the requirements of a shelter and now lies in complete disrepair on the ground at the Crossridge Trail crossing.  The picnic tables were located at Walker Hall and the toilets were non-flushing Swedish toilets, located in the building.

Nearing Walker Hall, we had a nice view of the Claypit Pond, below, and found several red partridgeberry berries.  Dr. Cook pointed out that you can see two holes or “scars” on each berry where the two flowers, typical of partridgeberrys, were located before the berry or fruit was formed.   After arriving at Walker Hall, we took the wooden stairs down to the Claypit Pond Trail.

Claypit Pond Trail:
At the bottom of the stairs, we turned right along the Claypit Pond Trail and skirted along the south end of the Claypit Pond.  We stopped at the base of the hill, below Walker Hall, where Dr. Cook pointed out that he had salvaged several galax plants from a location near Red Fox Run.  This location is considerably south of their normal range and the plants would have been wiped out by the upcoming sewer line project so he requested permission and was allowed to transplant them to this location.   They returned each year for several years, before finally dying out, to never return again.   Interestingly, he pointed out that in the same location where the galax were found, he also saw prickly pear cactus, two plants that you would never expect to find living together.

Moving along the edge of the Claypit Pond, we saw a Southern grape fern and a hearts-a-bursting.   Not far down the trail, I noticed a suspicious patch of lichen on a tree trunk.  I gave it a little nudge with my finger and it moved, indicating it was actually an aphid lion, the nymph stage of a green lacewing.  The nymphs stick lichen fragments on their backs to mimic lichen patches and avoid predation by birds.

While looking over the pond, Dr. Cooks told us that in 1974, he was flying over the property when he noticed that it was completely encircled by a dike, something of which he was not previously aware.  He later walked the dike, constructed by the brick factory to keep Sandy Creek out when in flood, to discover that beaver had breached the dike and had constructed their own dams.  Today, there is a three-part containment system around the pond, the dike made by man, dams constructed by beaver and natural levees formed by flooding of Sandy Creek.

Moving along, we saw river oats and lespedeza before turning right up some steps, heading towards the Log House
Log House/Brick Factory Loop:
We turned left on the loop and, right before we reached the Log House, we took a short trip down towards the creek to look at the rhododendron patch, created when the Savannah River rhododendrons were transplanted earlier.

Log House:
After viewing the rhododendrons, we walked up to the front of the Log House for a short history of the log house.  It began with a nature center members field trip to Callaway Gardens, where it was noticed that they had an old log house on their property.  After returning from the Callaway Gardens trip, it was decided that the nature center needed a log house, too.  After a search of four counties in the Athens area, a suitable log house was found about a mile east of Enterprise, between Lexington and Elberton.  The cabin was in pretty good shape and the owner, a nice lady who was a benefactor of the Forestry School, said it could be had for free it the nature center would pay to move it.  A hauler, a Mr. Slade, was found in Marietta, who also happened to be the hauler who moved the covered bridge over the North Oconee River in Athens to the Stone Mountain park, and he agreed to move it for $5,000 and a deal was made. 
The chimney was removed and discarded and the roof and porches were removed.  The exterior walls were banded before hauling.   The hauler was instructed to be extremely careful in backing the old house into it’s present location, avoiding damage to the tree now seen to the right of the house.  After the house was set on its rock pillar foundation, a party was held to chink the logs and finish the house.  Smith Wilson made the chinking mud and everyone else took care of the chinking.  At the same time as the chinking party, the new roof and chimney was constructed. The chimney was constructed using rock from the old Thurmond house, which was located in the middle of the current greenway road, near the EVC.  We were reminded by Dr. Cook that the difference between and log house and a log cabin is that the log house has a wood floor and the log cabin has a dirt floor.

Dr. Cook also pointed out that when the log house was originally constructed, in 1840, the lady of the house stepped in at the last minute and informed the men that the ceiling was going to be much too low to handle smoke from the kitchen.  You can see, today, where the initial cuts were made for ceiling joist but were not completed, so that three more runs of log could be laid to raise the ceiling.  As an interesting side note, Dr. Cook told us that, while in the front office of the Forestry School one day, where he taught before retiring, he was getting a test typed up and the woman that was doing the typing asked him where the nature center found the log house.  When he told her where they obtained it, she informed him that it was the house that her mother was born in.  A further coincidence is that their family name was Slade, no relation to the gentleman who moved the house.

Later on, a short addition to the cabin was added, between the right side of the cabin and the tree.

Brick Factory:
We made our way around the loop to the Brick Factory.  As we crossed the small foot bridge, we learned that the Brick Factory burned in 1922.  It was founded by Dr. Wilson, whose name is on the Pharmacy Building on the UGA campus.  It was not a profitable venture.
As we made our way around the ruins, he pointed out the large ditch which was the location of the brick drying kiln.  Formed bricks were loaded on little rail cars and made their way slowly, from one end of the kiln to the other, down the 100 yard long track, at a relatively low firing temperature, so as to prevent the bricks from cracking.  The entire drying process took 24 hours. 
The Brick Factory was the center of activities for many Halloween events at the SCNC, and Dr. Cook was a big part of these events, dressing as the Devil, the Grim Reaper and the Creep from the Deep.  It was clear that he took great pleasure in these activities.
We headed towards the greenway, via Walker Hall, and saw a large orb weaver web with a huge orange and brown orb weaver spider.   When I approached it, it scurried up the web to the shelter of the fascia board under the roof.  I still managed to get a nice photo of the spider, probably better than I could have gotten with her on the web.  After leaving Walker Hall, we passed through an open area which Dr. Cook said was the site of the early annual meetings of members of the SCNC.  Fires were built in a small, open trench where hot dogs and marshmallows were roasted.   Scavenger hunts were commonly held for the youngsters attending the meetings and he told a story of having to approach a group of what can only be called hippies, skinny dipping not far away in the creek and had to ask them, for the time being, at least, to put their clothes back on, until the children were no longer present.

North Oconee River Greenway:
We left the Walker Hall area and headed back to the Education and Visitor Center, seeing several things of interest, including horse sugar shrubs, Asiatic dayflowers, several orb weaver spiders.  We arrived back at the Education and Visitor Center and enjoyed some nice conversation, cake, pie and coffee before everyone headed home.


Oyster mushrooms
Pleurotus ostreatus tentative ID
Other unidentified mushrooms

Japanese stilt grass
Microstegium vimineum
Woodlands grass
Chasmanthium sessiliflorum
Eleagnus sp. Invasive
Ligustrum sp. Invasive
Pine trees
Pinus sp.
Water oak
Quercus nigra
Mitchella repens
Nandina domestica Invasive
Southern grape fern
Botrychium biternatum
Euonymus americanus .
Aphid lion
larval stage of green lacewing
 Family Chrysopidae
River oats
Chasmanthium latifolium
Lespedeza sp.
Carolina rhododendron
Rhododendron carolinianum

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