Earlier this fall I was the winning bidder for an item at a silent auction to raise funds for our local nature center (Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens). The item? A guided day hike to the place of our choosing by one of Athens' most famous trail blazers, Walter Cook! I bid on the item because I thought hiking with an experienced person like Walt would be a great way for my husband and me, 2 relative newcomers to Georgia, to get acquainted with the local hiking scene. Walt and I tried originally to set up a day for a hike somewhere in the mountains while the fall leaves were still beautiful, and before hunting season started, but our busy travel schedule kept getting in the way. Finally he and I settled on a date in December. Walt had several ideas for local trails and made sure I knew that he also had a few favorite BBQ places in mind for lunch after the hike. I had no idea we were signing up for the full package! In the end, Walt decided on a trail and lunch combo that kept us closer to Athens so we wouldn't have to travel too far or watch for hunters. We would be hiking the north end of Cook's Trail and the Oxbow Loop in Sandy Creek Park, about 5 miles, followed not by BBQ, but by tasty Mexican lunch at a roadside eatery near the park. (It was delicious!) I was secretly thrilled because the trail we would hike was built by him and named for him and we were going to get to hike it with him! How cool is that??
|Walt shows Art where we'll be going|
I had heard a lot about Walt over the year we've been in town, but somehow we never seemed to cross paths, even though we know a lot of the same people and hang around in some of the same nature circles. He is a retired Forestry Professor from UGA with a passion for beautiful forests, parks and trails. He has built countless trails all over Georgia and the Southeast. He was also one of the co-founders of Sandy Creek Nature Center in the 1970's where I am a happy volunteer trail guide, member and new board member. I have a deep respect for many people in the nation who had the vision to come together to purchase land and build nature centers during that time in our history. There was a real sense of connection with the land and new understanding of the importance of ecology and environmental education, combined with a strong community spirit and belief in the future generations. Much of the construction at Morningside Nature Center in Gainesville, Florida--another one of my favorite parks--was also done then.
|Cook's Trial Marker and one of Walt's Benches|
Because we didn't know each other yet, we agreed to meet at the gate of Sandy Creek Park. He said we should look for his little red car. When my husband and I pulled into the gate that cold morning and saw his little red car, covered with liberal and conservation bumper stickers just like our car, I knew we were going to get along fine. He led us through the park to the the trailhead and we made our introductions and headed off on our adventure. Walt seemed a little surprised that we didn't bring our kids with us. He had scoped out the trail the day before and as we later found out, had flagged a number of things he thought would be of particular interest to kids. I explained that our kids have grown and flown the coop, but that I loved fun nature discoveries and that he should still share them with me!
|Osage Orange with Long Thorns--Cool for Kids (And Us!)|
|A Rotted Tree Stump with Thick Walls|
It was a quiet morning in the park and we only ran into 2-3 other people on the trail. It was peaceful and the light was beautiful. Did I mention that it was cold? Temperatures didn't get much over 40 that entire day and in the morning there was still frost covering the grass and leaves. Slow sections of the stream were frozen and clusters of frost flowers (not actual flowers, but ice extruded through the stems of hollow plants) dotted the banks. The birds were quiet most of the morning, getting louder as the sun warmed the woods.
|Free Standing Frost Squiggle in the Path|
|Frost Flower with a Brave Spider|
As we walked (rather briskly, I might add--I had to run to catch up whenever I stopped to take photos!) Walt talked about the history of the trail and the nature center. He told us about the people who had the brilliant idea to buy the property, and the determination that it took to raise funds and do the hard work. He told us about the aesthetics of managing forests and about carving trails with hand tools--shovels, saws and clippers. He showed us special trees and favorite views from the trail. He pointed out benches and bridges that he had designed and the ones he hadn't that didn't work as well. He told us about the people with whom he had walked and who had said, "we need a bench here".
|Archway over the Trail|
|Cold Blue Heron on the Frozen Pond|
|Aerial Roots from Muscadine Grape Vines|
|Some Kind of Seed Pod on a Vine--Milkweed Family?|
We talked about our families and our histories, about the importance of parks and nature education, and about how difficult it is to protect them. He stopped a few times to measure trees and another time took us into the now dry flood plain to measure the height of the roots of the trees, showing signs of the drought. He knew exactly how long the stretch of Christmas Ferns was along the Oxbow loop because he had measured it. He knew this trail like an old friend.
|The Water has Dried Up|
|Stand of Christmas Ferns that Stretches Across the Entire Hillside|
When he saw something particularly pretty or interesting he would pull out his camera to photograph it. Of course, I had my camera working the whole time. We were both getting shots of one pretty and mossy log and he told us that his philosophy was that beauty can be found where you look for it, in the small things. I blurted out, "I feel exactly the same way!" and I knew we were going to be friends long after this walk.
|Cluster of Mushrooms|
|More Tiny Mushrooms on a Cold Morning|
|Lush and Gorgeous Mossy Log|
Near the end of the hike he came to a place where he had stashed a beaver gnaw stick the day before, with the idea of giving it to our kids. I kept it for myself, instead, a special memento from a beautiful day.
|Nearing the End of the Trail|
|My Gnaw Stick|