Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A June 3, 2009 Walk in the Woods at Keowee-Toxaway State Park, S.C.

Today I decided to hike the whole Natural Bridge Trail here at Keowee-Toxaway State Park.

[Click photos for larger versions]

090603 Keowee Hike Small “Hike?” … Well, really, more of a walk, since the Park rates the Natural Bridge Trail as “moderate,” rather than difficult or challenging.

I walked part of it during my first visit three months ago, and wrote about the experience. That was before knee surgery on March 25th. So I ended up turning back before reaching the natural stone bridge, the main feature of the trail!

Some of us remember romping through the woods as children. Carefree, heedless of distance, trail surface -- if there was a trail! -- or change in altitude. Just enjoying the freedom of being out-of-doors, and what we thought was out on our own.

Well, the “Easy” and more “Moderate” walking trails in South Carolina’s state parks give us ElderWalkers the opportunity to enjoy at least some of that experience again!

I was fortunate during formative pre-teen years to live on a small farm in the foothills of the Allegany Mountains. With broad stony fields, rolling, heavily wooded hills, and even areas of swamp. A good-sized creek was less than ten minutes' walk from the house.

Another fifteen minutes’ along that narrow, barely two-lane macadam “highway” brought a small general store into view. It occupied the southeast corner of a crossroads that once had been the center of a thriving town.

By the time I came along, however, that store, an abandoned railroad depot, a small Methodist church, and a large well-kept cemetery were all that was left of the town’s public buildings.

So, the things most interesting and appealing for an under-employed but curious pre-teen lad were to be found in nature. Especially in the surrounding hills and woods. The privilege of living in that environment gave me a lifelong love of rambling through the woods: "tramping the hills," as it was called back then. What a gift!

For this walk, I took only our son’s sophisticated DSLR camera, a suitable hat, and a walking stick. With, of course, plenty of sun screen and a trusty anti-sunburn long-sleeved shirt.

A bottle of water would have been nice. But preparing for the walk it seemed too bulky to carry. Big Mistake! As it turned out, a drink of water, even tepid tap water, would have been most welcome during the latter half of the hike -- ‘er, walk. Something to remember when preparing for future expeditions.

I drove down from the campsite to park behind the Park Office, arriving at the nearby trailhead around 2:00 p.m.

Natural Bridge TrailheadThe outside temperature was in the mid- to high-80s, with steady sunshine. And a nice breeze through the trees, at least at the top of the ridges. Ideal conditions for hiking -- ‘er, walking.

The Park Service categorizes this Natural Bridge Trail as "moderate." Which it is. There are sections, especially at the beginning, that could be described as "easy." Wide, smooth surfaces, with only gradual changes in elevation. Paths that might even accommodate a scooter or wheel chair for short distances. Not far, though. Just far enough to get the feeling of the place. As you can see in the photo below of the beginning section of this trail.

Trail Beginning

Another advantage of these “easy” and "moderate" hiking trails for the ElderHiker is that one can go along as far as one wishes, or feels comfortable. And then decide it’s time to quit. But! It’s always necessary to go back.

That means this form of exercise isn't as forgiving as a workout at home or in the gym. Where it's possible to stop at any point in the program. To answer a cell phone; to attend to a forgotten social or professional obligation; to jot down invaluable thoughts for the next book chapter; or even to write a blog entry. All excellent justifications for abandoning exercise in the middle!

On a trail, though, even a looping trail like this one, the way back to the beginning awaits before we can call it a day. Well, either that, or call for an evacuation of some kind! A fate most certainly worse than a little more huffing and puffing.

Last time I hiked about sixty percent of this same trail. Turning left at the loop you can see on the map at the beginning. Unbeknownst to me, covering the most difficult part! And not far at all from the natural stone bridge for which the trail is named. This was just before surgery on the left knee. So I'll blame it on that …. But for whatever excuse or reason, the trail back always awaits! Far better exercise motivation than a video tape or an encouraging live coach at the gym!

Since during my earlier walk I’d turned left at the beginning of the trail’s loop section, as the trail sign directed, this time I turned right. To take advantage of a different perspective through the section I’d already traveled.

Soon, the faint sound of water stumbling along a shallow brook filtered up from the bottom of the ravine through the thick vegetation. At first it was little more than a whisper. A sound I mistook for wind in the leaves.

Then it grew stronger. Unmistakable. Rising and falling as I walked along, depending on proximity to the rocky out-crops in the stream responsible for most of the noise. Here and there I caught sight of the stream below the trail. It was modest in size, but persistent. With enough of a flow to show up nicely by the time it approached the natural stone bridge.

Rushing Water MossThe bridge itself has no sign. None needed! Walking along the trail you suddenly see a flat surface ahead. With the appearance from a distance of hard-packed sand. As you near you realize what it is. That the surface you mistook for hard-packed sand actually is the top of the huge stone that forms the bridge. The BridgeThe Park service thankfully has refrained from adding sturdy guard rails here. Or even one of those officious "DO NOT STEP OFF THE TRAIL" signs. You’re on your own.

Free to step here and there, in search of yet another camera angle, risking as much as you want the possibility of slipping to a nasty fall. Or, being more cautious. It’s up to the individual enjoying this remarkable sight. And an important part of its charm.

Huge rocks -- boulders, really -- have been tossed here and there on both sides of the bridge. Certainly not the work of the small but persistent stream we now see exploiting breaks in the stone to continue its downward journey.

Water and Rocks The stones are smooth, with moss and leaves here and there showing imprints of earlier visitors’ boots. Perhaps photographers, determined to capture the remarkable atmosphere of the site.

I too tried my luck with our son’s sophisticated camera. But none of the 20 or so photos I took of the bridge and the surrounding boulders came close to capturing the sense of the place. Anyone could spend hours wandering about there without feeling bored.

Blue GrowthNow, this natural stone bridge is no Niagara Falls. Or Grand Canyon. Nothing so dramatic. But in its own way, in its own setting, it is every bit as impressive and thought-provoking. At least, for me.

What could have tossed all of those huge boulders helter-skelter? Leaving one of the largest with a smooth flat surface today to serve thousands of hikers as a natural bridge? How long did it take for the stream of water to adjust to the change, finding its way around and through the newly-created passages under these remarkable stones?

Stepping Stones Oh, an answer would be easy enough to find. Any regionally-focused high school geology book would offer an explanation. With footnotes! But I’d rather not look. I’m sure that even the most pedestrian of my outrageous hypotheses is more entertaining than the currently accepted scientific answer.

This is an old land. One that saw a lot before any human being set foot here. Or, possibly, before any human being set foot anywhere. To us, the most interesting era begins with human settlement. Only natural. But that's a late, late, and relatively short, chapter in this book.

I enjoyed standing near the bridge while speculating on its origins for some time. Not resting, now! Speculating. Too soon, it was time to go back.

Reluctantly, I left the natural stone bridge area and walked on down the trail. Before long it dropped steeply beside the stream. Steeply enough to require steps cut into the soil and rock. For some distance.

StepsNot far after the bottom of the steps pictured above, the Park Service kindly located another resting bench. Probably more out of consideration for those hikers going in the opposite direction, about to climb the steps, than for those of us coming down.

I saw a couple of hikers standing there to rest. Not walkers, now. But hikers! Staffs, boots, packs, water bottles, and spiffy hats. Surely hikers! They waved shyly and moved on along the trail toward the right.

A sign in front of the bench pointed sharply left, indicating that the trail exit was 0.74 miles in that direction. That didn't make sense to me since the stream not fifteen feet away flowed directly across what would have been the trail. Remembering those two hikers, I turned to the right to follow them. Forgetting for the moment the significance of their elaborate outfits.

There were no signs for a ways, and the trail was no more difficult than that I had descended just a few minutes ago. So I continued on. Before long, though, the trail took on quite a different character. Becoming considerably more difficult than it had been.

I struggled on for a while, and then spied a small trail marker: "Raven Rock Trail." Aha! No wonder! I had taken a wrong turn, and now was on the difficult “Raven Rock” trail, the trail a Park Ranger recently had described as “challenging.”

Swallowing pride, I turned around, returned to the aforementioned sign, convinced I’d missed something.

Which I had. The arrow pointing the way to the trail exit 0.74 miles away was correct. Looking closer, I could see a series of rocks placed carefully across the stream to provide stepping places. They all proved to be -- sorry -- solid as a rock! I then stepped across without even wetting the soles of my shoes, and walked up the bank on the other side.

Once across, the direction of the trail was obvious. So I continued on. In less than five minutes I reached the entrance to the Raven Rock Hiking Trail. Including a sign reassuring me that I was on the "moderate" Natural Bridge Nature Trail."

Raven Rock Trail SignBut the section from here to the beginning of the loop is the most challenging part of the whole Natural Bridge trail. And also some of the most beautiful.

Blossom 1 The trail wanders up and down the ridges and ravines, most of the time within sound of the stream at the bottom. Here and there steps are cut in the trail to ease ascent at some of its steepest sections. Nowhere is it dangerous if one is careful. Watching one's step. And making skillful use of a walking stick. But it is a strenuous climb for anyone as out of shape as me.

FernsToday it was in the high 80s, and sunny. Hardly the hottest weather we can expect here. But hot enough to be uncomfortable, especially without an appreciable breeze. And without a cooling bottle of water!

I plodded on. Resting here and there to catch my breath and to mop sweat and sunscreen lotion from my face, neck, and eyes. From time to time, I dried my right hand and the head of my walking stick which, had become slippery.

At any point during that part of the walk I would have gladly abandoned the hike for the air conditioned comfort of my car. But that was impossible. Good thing too.

I reached the end of the loop quite tired and sweaty, and ready to sit down for a rest. Fortunately, the Park Service anticipated the event and had placed one of their solid wooden rest benches not far up the trail toward the exit. I sat gratefully.

Resting BenchI've found an additional benefit from later-life hiking, or walking, in the woods. That is a keener sense of the beauty around me. Colors, shapes, and mini-dramas all are there, free for the looking, and interpretation. All more vivid to me today than they were as a youngster.

Memory is a tricky business, especially after fifty years or so. But it seems to me that as a lad I looked more for excitement than for beauty in those incredibly beautiful natural surroundings. Not that I was unaware of the beauty. Just a question of emphasis.

Now, the most memorable attractions are the many shades of green, the delicacy of simple flowers, the variety of plant life, the sound of water worrying over rocks in a distant brook. But especially, the remarkable display of colors.

Blossom 2And, there is drama and excitement as well. Hundreds of hiking boots and shoes had churned the earth beneath the bench into a sandy surface that would have done credit to most beach areas along the shore of Lake Keowee.

I plopped down gratefully on the bench, glad no other hikers were passing by to see my huffing and puffing. And the sweat dripping from the tip of my chin into the dusty sand below.

As I looked down I began to notice ants scurrying about in the sand. Several kinds of ants, in fact. Some large and black; some small and red; some small and black. All going about their business in the sand. Business which must have focused on acquisition of food and protection from predators.

I sat for a while, watching those ants. Thinking that as a youngster I would have hoped to see warfare break out among the various tribes of ants. Perhaps even disappointed if it didn't happen.

Today, though, it was a much nicer just to watch the various ant sects go about their business. Rushing here and there; investigating specks of vegetable matter; sometimes picking up and carrying large burdens, presumably back to their homes. Such a sight helps to put everyday life into perspective, if you let it. And also provides wonderful justification for resting longer than one might otherwise do!

I reluctantly abandoned that outpost of ant society, re-slung our son’s big camera around my neck, checked the GPS reading, and headed back up the trail, back toward the beginning. It was hot now, and I was glad to see the sign at the trailhead peep through the trees. Indeed, I’d have been glad to see it at the bottom of that last incline.

I’d seen much of the last part of trail before. However, the difference in appearance between early March and early June was surprising. Last time, many of the trees had yet to spread their full growth of leaves. They had by early June.

The leaves made a big difference in the appearance of the woods that enclosed the trail. The colors were different, of course. But also the perspective was different. I could no longer look down the slope beside the trail clear to the bottom of the ravine through the bare branches.

Also, now I could hear farther than I could see. A deer passing now was only a sound; not a sight. Birds large and small moved through the leaves as sounds rather than sights. Which enriched the sounds this time around. As well as provide a broader palate of color to consider and enjoy.

The final leg of the hike was easy, rather than moderate. Slightly up hill, but not anything noticeable. In a minute or two I could see the rear of the church building that had been converted into the Park Office. The end of the line.

I got in the car, turned the air conditioner to blow as directly on me as possible, and sat until I’d caught my breath and cooled off a bit. Then drove over to the Keowee Market to buy a 20-oz lemonade and a pint of ice cream. Don’t tell! It was the lack of water ….

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