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Blue Ridge

“Hellbendering”

After a very rainy, peaceful sleep, we meandered to the group area for a breakfast of grits, oatmeal, assorted pastries, yogurt and creations with leftover fried chicken.

We loaded up the van to head for the Skinny Dip Falls trailhead. Along the hike, we were educated on identification of the Indian cucumber root, which has an edible root that tastes like cucumber with the texture of a carrot. It’s always beneficial to be aware of natural food elements in your forest surroundings. After a short but brisk hike to the falls, we took in the magnificent wonders of the waterfall.

We left Skinny Dip Falls and went back to camp to prepare for snorkeling in the Davidson River for a peek into the habitat of the hellbender salamander. We arrived at the Pisgah National Forest ranger station for an informational meeting with Lori Williams, a wildlife biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. She educated us on everything hellbender. We even got to meet Rocky. Rocky is an almost fifteen-year-old hellbender that has been raised in captivity and is used for educational purposes.

Following our visit with Lori and Rocky, Ben and Reid (wildlife technicians) accompanied us to the river, where we suited up in warm clothes or wetsuits and snorkeled in the frigid water. Our group goal of spotting three elusive hellbenders in the wild was accomplished.

Thankfully, we warmed up in dry clothes and continued our adventure to Dolly’s where we revelled in luscious ice cream cones. We finished our eventful day with dinner in Brevard.

We returned to camp exhausted but satiated and ready to greet tomorrow with excitement and eagerness to continue to learn from Melissa, Megan, Chris, and one another.

Blue Ridge

“The Highs and Lows of Stone Mountain”

We completed a 3.3 mile hike on the Stone Mountain Loop trail after breakfast. Along the way we found an brightly colored red eft, the terrestrial juvenile phase of the Eastern Red-Spotted Newt, on the trail. We determined it was a salamander rather than a lizard because it had no scales and no claws. FYI, all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. Newts are toxic to fish and small mammals. Adult males have something called nuptial pads, which are raised rough ridges, on the inside of their hind feet during the breeding season to help hang onto the females.

Bright red salamander with sand stuck to its back held in an open palm. The salamander is about 3 inches long from nose to tail tip.

Eastern newt in the red eft life stage encountered in Stone Mountain State Park

We snacked on the summit of Stone Mountain while we observed the minerals in the igneous rock and discussed the processes that we thought were responsible for the creation of the granite dome, including continental collisions, magma cooling underground millions of years ago, and tons of weathering and erosion.

12 adults standing or sitting in two rows on top of a rock face of Stone Mountain (North Carolina) overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Blue Ridge Institute poses atop Stone Mountain, NC.

After lunch, we met with TR Russ, one of the eight non-game fisheries biologists in the state that work for the NC Wildlife Commission. He passed around a stone roller fish preserved in alcohol, as well as a paddle fish, just 2 of the more than 200 species he works with!

Using a backpack electroshocker and a swine net, we collected (for observation only) a handful of species of fish, along with a few crayfish/crawdads, 2 with a leeches attached to them. TR found a horsehair worm, the stuff of nightmares, a parasite that burrows into a cricket’s body, driving it crazy and drawing it to the river, where it then EXPLODES out of the poor creature to continue its life cycle in the water.

We then went snorkeling to observe the same fish within their natural habitat. The heat and humidity was bad today, so the cold river water felt refreshing.

Two people pose for a selfie holding up a small fish that is mostly a light brown color.

A quick selfie with Lenae, Becqui, and a striped jumprock fish while exploring the Roaring River at Stone Mountain State Park

This was followed by a visit to the bottom of Stone Mountain Falls, a 200-foot tall cascade. The problem is, to get to the Falls you have to climb down a flight of 300 stairs…and back up again.

We also learned to use the Seek app, which is a very resourceful tool in identifying species of flora and fauna. And experts within our group presented on topics of the hemlock wooly adelgid, the southern flying squirrel, and the raven. We received a bookmark full of adelgid information, played a group game featuring flying squirrel facts, and created a make and take modeled after the amazing raven.

All this in our first day! And what a day it was.

Blue Ridge

“We Are From”

Foreground is a pool of clear water. Rocks slope upward from the pool towards a cascading waterfall. Pine trees and rhododendron frame the falls and pools on either side.

Widow’s Creek Falls at Stone Mountain State Park

We are from daypacks.
From Crazy Creek chairs and Nalgene bottles.
We are from North Carolina (mountain, piedmont, and coastal plain).
We are are from white pines, five needles per fascicle, open cones, fast-growing.
We are from group norms and trip goals.
From Melissa, Megan, and Chris.
We are from lifelong learners and explorers.
From “choose your own adventure” and “leave no trace.”
We are from Mother Nature and unplug, recharge.
We are from schools and museums.
Trail mix and Clif bars.
From eating our first meal in a bag to Chris showing us how to slide down Widow’s Creek Falls.
From using our five senses to notice, wonder, and reminisce.
Nature journals, data collection, cell phone pictures, and group stories.
We are from different backgrounds and experiences, but we all share the desire to inspire new explorers.

Foreground is a pool of clear water. Rocks slope upward from the pool creating a natural waterslide. A person is standing at the top of the slide, and another person is sliding down. Pine trees and rhododendron frame a waterfall and pools on either side.

Waterfall sliding at Widow’s Creek Falls at Stone Mountain State Park, NC

Looking down into a plastic zip top bag containing a freeze-dried meal that has been rehydrated. A spoon is sticking out of the bag towards the camera.

First meal of the trip, rehydrated meals in a bag!

Blue Ridge

“Salamanders Team in the Stream”

Group of teachers in the forest.

Cohort #1: Educators of Excellence

The day started off rainy and dreary but as we packed the vans and headed towards North Carolina’s Stone Mountain State Park the skies cleared. During our trip we listened to a podcast “Ologies — Cervidology.” “Cervid” means neck and is the study of deer. We learned some crazy things like the fact that deer will sometimes prey upon baby birds.

Upon arriving we quickly unpacked the tents and set them up; some of us for the first time ever! We spent the early evening getting to know each other through poetry and self-introduction. We also covered the schedule for our trip and norms.

We spent time getting in tune with our senses and observing the natural wonder all around us. After some exploration, we found a Leaf-footed Bug, a Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle and a raven, and one group found an Eastern Box Turtle. Nature is all around us!

Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle.

Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle — check out those mandibles!


We enjoyed a camp prepared dinner and took a quick journey to the falls to swim in the brisk water before tucking in for the night.

Melissa and two Sarahs from Team Salamander appreciating Widow Creek Falls.

Melissa and two Sarahs from Team Salamander appreciating Widow Creek Falls.