Wednesday, January 17, 2018

WNC Nature Center / Asheville Wildlife Park

On federal holidays we take a different approach to choosing places to go explore with the kids, as many destinations are closed (such as parks, historic sites and museums), while others offer specific programming meant to care for children while their parents are at work (popular kids’ attractions). We used the recent day off to take a day-trip to  Asheville, to one of my favorites - the Western North Carolina Nature Center. Open 7 days a week (with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve & Day, and New Year's Day), from 10 to 5!

Owned by the City of Asheville, the WNC Nature Center is dedicated to connecting people with the animals and plants of the Southern Appalachians. The location within a bend of the Swannanoa River was previously home to the Asheville Zoo, which housed exotic animals from 1925 until it was transformed into the Nature Center in 1977. (Read more about the fascinating history of the zoo here; it includes tidbits such as that the location of the grave of Henrietta, a three-ton Indian Elephant who spent 30 years at the center, is under what is now the petting zoo area.)

Upon arrival guests enter through the Welcome Center. Prices are reasonable ($6.95 for children ages 3-15 and $10.95 for adults, with discounts to Buncombe County Residents and seniors), but we got in for free; as an accredited AZA and ASTC member, the center participates in the passport reciprocity program offering discounted admission to over 350 zoos, aquariums and science centers nationwide including the Greenville Zoo and Roper Mountain Science Center. There are only eight AZA –accredited facilities in North Carolina: among them the Durham Museum of Life and Science and the Greensboro Science Center.

Pisgah and Mitchell, the resident cougars

We headed for the raccoon and fox enclosures first, passing two Nature Play areas on our way. These zones are located throughout the park and feature activities such as natural balance beams and stump jumps, musical instruments, art sites and more. At “builder’s Deck” the boys built a racecourse with chutes, and then just behind the Turtle Amphitheater they built a lean-to while listening to the sounds of pebble-triggered instruments. Age-appropriate scavenger hunts are also available – see the website to print those out before your visit.

Nature Play areas are located throughout the park!

The Small Mammal exhibits opened in 2009 and are home to red & gray foxes and raccoons. In addition to education, one of the main goals of the center is to allow the public to see the animals in their natural habitat, with little-to-no cages or concrete. Large viewing windows accommodate visitors of all sizes, while fencing allows views into the enclosure while not making it seem confined.

Sassy the raccoon and Toby the red fox

When the otter feeding was announced we headed to Brandon’s Otter Falls where we met Olive and Obi Wan Kenobi, two North American River Otters. The exhibit features underwater viewing and a flowing river, and while the keeper fed the otters he discussed their care and habits.

The resident otters, the lower underwater viewing area, and the otter slide play area

Next up, the 4-acre Appalachian Predators exhibit features coyotes, cougars & bobcats, and contains the red & gray wolf habitats. The red wolf exhibit opened in 2008 and complies with the requirements of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan. In 1980 there were fewer than 20 wolves remaining in the wild, while today approximately 90 – 110 wild red wolves live at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1990, 13 red wolf pups have been born at the WNC Nature Center.

The two gray wolves, Nova and Wayah, were born in a wildlife facility in Montana and came to the Nature Center in June of 2014. We got an up-close view of the wolves, giving an adrenaline-rush despite the thick safety glass separating us from these skilled hunters.

Stare down!

We paused in the Arachnid Adventure Playground for some more nature play; the boys climbed webs while I hunted for the spider sculptures hidden there. The Trillium Nature Trail begins at this end; the 0.6 mile trail winds through the forest along the Swannanoa River.

After a hot chocolate break at the Explorer’s Outpost (which has gem mining during the warmer months) to warm up we stopped at the Main Barn and Petting Zoo area. It was too cold to pet the animals on our visit; however we enjoyed additional Nature Play areas before circling around Black Bear Ridge.

This Cotswold sheep (Gibson) is a resident of the petting zoo

The black bears were already hibernating, but the white tailed deer were out in the adjacent enclosure. This whole area will see a large revamp in the coming years, as the next phase of the park’s “2020 Vision” will feature a new and improved park entrance, the addition of species such as the red panda, and a new name: Asheville Wildlife Park. You can download your copy of the master site plan here.

The bear enclosure, with the main barn visible in the background

We made one final pass through the heart of the zoo, greeting the Birds of Prey and exploring the “World Underground” before entering Appalachian Station. The indoor exhibit features a variety of reptiles including rattlesnakes and copperheads, as well as amphibians and small mammals. I took a break on one of the benches in the center while the boys circled the aquariums and terrariums, locating each inhabitant and discussing their favorites.

What makes the WNC Nature Center unique is that it concentrates exclusively on the wildlife of the Southern Appalachians. Throughout the 42 acres visitors will find engaging exhibits and hands-on nature play centers, offering a wealth of information and entertainment. And it just keeps getting better! On our way out we passed the construction zone on the lower lot; we’ll be back soon to watch the progress towards the Nature Center’s transformation into the Asheville Wildlife Park!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Corolla wild horses

We most often associate free-roaming horses with the American West, but did you know there are multiple populations of wild horses that live along the Atlantic coast? In the Southeast there are the Chincoteague Ponies of Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, the Cumberland Island horses in Georgia, and four separate groups in North Carolina: the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, Beaufort's wild horses, the Ocracoke Island Banker ponies, and the wild Spanish mustangs of Corolla.

The Corolla horses are a living legacy of European and American history, descendants of Spanish mustangs brought to the Carolina coast by European explorers and colonists in the 1500s. The small, sturdy horses have survived for centuries in the salt marshes, dunes and maritime forests of the Outer Banks, at one point roaming freely along the entire length of the coastal barrier island chain.

The terrain and inaccessibility of the islands insulated them from human contact for nearly 400 years, but with the increase in popularity and development of the barrier islands, the horses saw a proportionate decrease in territory available for them to roam. The wild horses were pushed into isolated havens, one such group making their home in the islands north of Duck.

After highway NC12 was completed from Duck to Corolla in the mid 1980's, the traffic, increase in population and explosive development proved dangerous for the horses. The decline in population was a result of car accidents and the proximity to humans; the horses are used to a natural diet found in the marshes and forests, and consuming other food can cause illness and death. Once free to roam from the village of Corolla north to the Virginia border, the remaining wild Spanish mustangs were eventually given protected status and moved north to the mostly undeveloped land on the northern-most reaches of Currituck Banks. Organizations such as the Corolla Wild Horse Fund monitor the health of the herd and work to educate the public to keep the Corolla horses safe.

Seeing the wild horses isn’t as easy as taking a stroll on the beach. Although their habitat has shrunk, it is still a large area to cover - stretching eleven miles from a the fence north of Corolla to the NC/VA border fence, bounded on the East by the Atlantic Ocean and on the West by Currituck Sound. In addition, the horses are often grazing inland, hidden away in the marshes and forests.

To see the Corolla mustangs you need a four-wheel drive vehicle and a bit of luck. Highway NC-12 ends at the south horse fence, and proceeding north the beach becomes a highway of sorts. The hundreds of beach homes scattered throughout the area are connected to the ‘beach highway’ by a series of sandy paths, roads only in the loosest sense. It helps to have a local along to navigate this maze of routes, as they know where the horses often congregate and which areas are closed to vehicular traffic.

We opted to book a tour with one of the companies that take visitors up the beach and onto the back roads, Corolla Outback Adventures. The family business has been in operation since 1962, when the Benders began offering tours north from Kill Devil Hills at a time when there were no paved roads in the region. The tour company has exclusive access to certain areas, increasing the odds of seeing the horses in their natural habitat.

The amount of visitors to Currituck is another reason to visit the Outer Banks off season. Despite the chilly November temperatures there was a steady stream of vehicles headed up and down the beach – I can’t imagine how crazy the traffic must be in the summer. This is not an area for beachcombing or playing in the surf, and the high density of vehicles was definitely a turn-off. It got better once we turned off the beach, but the area is not the wildlife area I had imagined; instead it is dotted with beach houses, new construction going up everywhere. The first horses we saw were grazing in people’s yards, and we listened to stories of visitors waking up to the sounds of the wild horses taking shelter under their rental home in inclement weather.

If we were to do it all again we might rent a house in Carova Beach, renting a 4x4 vehicle for a few days and spending our time driving the sand roads and searching for horses. On the other hand it was easy enough to make the trip from our hotel in Duck, and the beach there didn’t pose the hazard of vehicular traffic – a definite plus in terms of keeping the kids happy. One day spent up in the northern reaches of Currituck seemed enough; we saw the wild mustangs in the early afternoon (which gave it a chance to warm up a bit for the tour!), and then spent the rest of our time in Corolla, climbing the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and then watching the sunset over the sound.

All in all, our guide was knowledgeable on multiple subjects and had the added experience of being a guide and resident for many years. In addition to seeing over a dozen horses we also visited the maritime forest and enjoyed a view of Currituck Sound and the marsh. When it was time to head back south to Corolla and paved roads, our gaze and thoughts remained north – on the dunes of Currituck, the blue waters of the Atlantic, and the Corolla wild mustangs.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Toasty Farmer at Brewery 85

This article is part of the Food on Friday series.

Browsing The Toasty Farmers market

With the recent article in Town Magazine, The Toasty Farmer is no longer an Upstate secret; however, parents in the know have discovered that the family-friendly, winter farmers market can be the perfect outing on a cold winter’s day.

The unassuming frontage road that leads to Brewery 85 might lead new visitors to question their GPS, but you’ll soon known you’re in the right place by the cars overflowing from the brewery parking lot. The craft microbrewery is named for Interstate 85, central to the location on Whitlee Ct. and also to the region, connecting the hometowns of members of the ‘Brew Crew.’ The farmers market is mostly an indoor event, but you’ll find the food trucks outdoors; hot chocolate to warm up those kiddos, anyone?

Brewery 85 is celebrating their 4th anniversary on Saturday, January 27th!

The main entrance opens into the bar area where knowledgeable staff will help make a decision among the multiple beers on tap (they also have cider, wine, and a few non-alcoholic options for kids) that can be taken into the vending area in the main area of the brewery just around the corner.

Before we even make it into the market, the kids get sidetracked by the view of the brewery floor, all the enormous, shiny tanks, kettles and mills fueling their imagination. The brewery opened in 2014, and The Toasty Farmer launched a couple years later to provide an outlet for farm produce and goods during the winter season (in addition to bringing customers to the brewery). Starting with 7 markets the first year, this second season there will be a total of 19, every Saturday through March 10th. Doors are open from 11am to 2pm.

Sea Eagle Seafood setting up for the oyster roast in the picnic area

Once you’ve browsed the bakery, dairy, winter veggie and other vendors, head to the back of the space to pick up some Sea Eagle Seafood, who bring their fresh catch from Beaufort every other week. On the first Saturday of the month the market hosts an oyster roast – all you can eat fresh cluster oysters and low country-style sides – turning the picnic area out back into a community gathering place (as weather permits, the tables are set up indoors in inclement weather).

Snacks provided by Upcountry Provisions

The kids’ favorite vendor has a sweet pastry that we allow them to dig into while shopping, and I enjoy browsing cheeses from the creamery and perhaps purchasing a local wine. When the weather is warmer the kids can run around outside while the parents enjoy a beverage at one of the picnic tables, while in cold and rainy weather we seat them with a snack and relax & enjoy the atmosphere indoors. With 45 vendors it’s a sure bet to find a local artisan, producer or farmer to talk with; the food trucks, music and craft beer are a bonus.

Greenville-based ViviDivine jewelry 

For more information, visit The Toasty Farmer Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Log Shoals Park, coming soon to Greenville County

There is good news for residents of south Greenville County, as Greenville County Rec has announced that a new park will be opening south of I-185. Currently there is only one park in the area, Southside Park, the next closest parks being Cedar Falls in Fountain Inn, the Piedmont Athletic Complex, and Conestee Park in Greenville.

Source: here
The new park will shadow a bend in the river just south of the Log Shoals Road Bridge, encompassing a scenic portion of shoals at a spot on the river long known to paddlers as a convenient spot to launch or take out. Those kayaking the Reedy River often put in below the dam at Lake Conestee Nature Park for a 4-mile paddle that requires traversing Class 1 & 2 rapids to reach Log Shoals, or they put in at Log Shoals and proceed 2.5 miles downriver to West Georgia Road and the Rocky Creek greenway. A dirt parking lot on the west shore of the Reedy served double duty as an access point for paddlers and the driveway for an adjacent property, but late in 2016 Greenville County finally pieced together the 10+ acres that will form the core of the park, moved the fences to reflect this change in ownership, and finally early this year put up a new sign to replace the former one which went missing not long after it had been installed.

A sign declaring the “Future home of Log Shoals Park” is up at the Log Shoals Bridge 

Opening up this section of the Reedy River could also prove to be key in bringing the Swamp Rabbit Trail further south. Communities such as Long Creek Plantation (situated at the intersection of the Reedy and Rocky Creek just south of Log Shoals) have constructed their own series of trails along the Reedy; Long Creek boasts 40 acres of nature trails and green open spaces that run adjacent to Reedy & Rocky Creeks for nearly 2.5 miles. Although these trails are not open to the public, the Greenville County Master Plan suggests utilizing such existing greenways along the Reedy to connect the cities of Greenville, Mauldin & Simpsonville, the Donaldson Center Area, Southside Park & area schools with a network of trails. The realization of this vision could mean a trail taking cyclists and foot traffic from Lake Conestee Nature Park to Log Shoals and Southside Park, all the way to Cedar Falls and eventually Dunklin Bridge Road. (See Greenville County’s Comprehensive Greenway Plan for more information.)

Old stone foundation visible on creek that empties into the Reedy within Park boundaries

The bad news is that for those thinking of trying out a new swimming hole, you'll want to hold off on that. The primary water recreation at Log Shoals will be boating, as the Reedy River is still not considered safe for swimming. One of Greenville County’s six permanent water quality monitoring stations on the Reedy is located at Log Shoals Road, and testing results at times show extremely elevated levels of bacteria in the water including ecoli and fecal coliform. To stay up to date on efforts being made to improve the water quality and reduce pollution of our hometown river, as well as learn how to get involved in the effort, visit the Friends of the Reedy River website.

A Greenville County source says that as of yet there is no set date for groundbreaking on the new park, nor is there a target date/year to open the park. Seeing the City of Greenville’s focus on parks and recreation in 2018, one can only hope Greenville County follows suit – and opens this beautiful spot to the public sooner than later.

Monday, January 8, 2018

En route to the Outer Banks: Lake Benson

It seems like last year (wait, it was last year) that we headed northeast to the Outer Banks; we had a four day weekend, and have learned that off-season on the Atlantic coast can make for some great memories. The drive to the North Carolina barrier islands is deceptively long, as despite being only one state over, the drive is at best 7 hours – and that’s only to get across the causeway… If you’re headed to (for example) Ocracoke you still have another hour or two (without traffic) and a ferry ride ahead.

To break up the trip you can opt to stop halfway in Raleigh, NC, which offers plenty of sightseeing options in the area including attractions in the neighboring Durham and Chapel Hill. We’ve had our share of adventures in the Research Triangle, including exploring University of North Carolina, the Museum of Life and Science, and the North Carolina Botanical Garden. On this trip we opted for a stop at Lake Benson Park near Garner, NC.

The 64-acres include large grassy areas perfect for picnics and ball games, 1.8 miles of paved and unpaved trails, two playgrounds and four picnic shelters. Lake Benson Park is part of a chain of greenways that connect White Deer Park Nature Center and Thompson Road Park with Lake Benson. The Lake Benson Boathouse (975 Buffaloe Rd.) is open seasonally for boating and fishing from mid-March through October, and after passing that you’ll come to the park entrance and the Garner Veterans Memorial.

Following the park road all the way to the end will bring you to a parking area, the playgrounds, picnic shelters, trailheads and restroom facilities. We opted to stretch our legs on the Lake Benson Park TRACK Trail, which follows the Lake Benson Woodland Trail and a portion of the Loop Trail for a total of about 1 mile. (Note: the Lake Benson Woodland Trail is marked by orange markers and the Lake Benson Loop Trail is marked by blue markers, but I found this map to be most helpful.)

Kids in Parks TRACK Trail

Although a sunny day, it was chilly; a brisk walk on the boardwalks and along the shore of Lake Benson was just the thing to warm us up. The Lake wasn’t very appealing however; it is my understanding that a variety of issues, including the pumping of water, the development of the land surrounding the lake (and subsequent silt runoff) and introduction of multiple invasive and exotic species including hydrilla & grass carp have resulted in a diminished version of its former self. Swimming is not allowed in the lake, but I can’t imagine who would want to.

The trails and playgrounds made up for the disappointment of the lakeshore, and we spent the remainder of our time there before packing up and heading on. While Lake Benson Park may not be our first choice of places to stop on route to the shore next time, it offered a nice respite from the drive, needed amenities, and easy trails through a woodland park setting. Next stop, Outer Banks.

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