Raleigh News and Observer April 2, 2004

Lower Haw reveals treasures

By JOE MILLER, Staff Writer

BYNUM -- Along a particularly rocky stretch of the Haw River, a particularly unusual collection of rocks draws our attention. These rocks didn't just happen, they were placed here, laid in a wall maybe 3 feet high, 20 feet long with no immediately apparent purpose.

"It's a little close to the river for farming," observes Doug Nicholas with the Triangle Land Conservancy. Early Piedmont farmers would clear fields of rocks and place them in a central location, like this. But this mound is 20 feet from the banks of the Haw, and judging from the clumps of natural debris we've seen snagged farther up the bank, this area is susceptible to flooding.

"They did try to make the river navigable," offers Cynthia Crossen, who coordinates river watch monitoring for the Haw River Assembly, the Bynum-based nonprofit that helps protect the river. Crossen is also a bit of a Haw historian, and she recalls early efforts, largely unsuccessful, to create locks on the river to make it possible for barges to pass. Of course, it could be part of a long-abandoned mill dam, Crossen says. And there were plenty of mills on the Haw that relied on hydropower. Still, something about this configuration -- its distance from the river and its angle -- doesn't feel quite right for a mill dam. We study the wall, which has been largely filled with sediment on its upstream side, speculate a bit more, then continue our trek, content to let the wall keep its story secret. It's one of many mysteries we will encounter on this exploration of the state's newest property, the Lower Haw River State Natural Area.

Lower Haw is a 1,022-acre corridor of land in Chatham County bordering both banks of the Haw from Bynum downstream to where the river empties into Jordan Lake, a distance of about four miles. Initially farmed and timbered, the land became part of the Duke Forest system in 1966. But its distance from the Duke campus made it difficult to conduct research, and in 2001 Duke decided to sell the property. Long story short, the Triangle Land Conservancy became involved, working a deal in which the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources was able to buy the land for $2.5 million using money from the state Ecosystem Enhancement Program. (The program is used largely to allow the state Department of Transportation to "replace" wetlands it consumes in the process of making roads.) The deal was closed in December.

In less than two years, short order in the governmental scheme of things, the state had a new natural area. Once the General Assembly finishes dotting the remaining i's and crossing the remaining t's, the area will be administered by officials at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, much as Occoneechee State Natural Area in Hillsborough is managed through Eno River State Park.

Formal introductions out of the way, we continue our hike up the Haw.

The Haw's frisky Class II waters are well known by kayakers and canoeists. Yet a dearth of public lands along the 110-mile river, with modest, spring-fed beginnings northwest of Greensboro, has meant few opportunities to explore the corridor on foot. Anyone who hasn't paddled this particular section and navigated its myriad rock gardens and ledges may be surprised by the area's rugged nature.

"This is part of the Carolina Slate Belt," says John Taggart, resource management specialist with the state Division of Parks and Recreation, who is taking his maiden hike on the property. Examining a particularly impressive boulder field that spills from the ridge and into the Haw, he adds: "These are sedimentary and volcanic rocks from the lower Paleozoic. These rocks are billions of years old."

Old they may be, but in places they present some good scrambling opportunities.

We walk on along a well-established fisherman's trail, keeping an eye peeled for wildflowers. They're supposed to be abundant, but the late winter apparently is delaying the show. Crossen finds some trout lilies whose delicate yellow flowers are clamped tight. Ditto a cranefly orchid.

The reluctant wildflowers present the day's second mystery: a plethora of two-leafed sprigs poking through the coppery leaf litter. Taggart hunches down and makes a long analysis before uttering his verdict: "It's too soon to call."

But the mystery nags. A few minutes later, encountering another patch, Taggart speculates that they could be spring beauties.

"This is the perfect habitat," Crossen says, "open and flat."

In fact, in just a few steps the landscape has changed dramatically. The steep slopes abundant with boulders and mixed hardwoods -- red oaks, black gum, hickories, elms and sourwoods -- have given way to a flat flood plain, where sycamores and swamp chestnuts rule. The constant call of the Haw, channeling through boulders and crashing over rock ledges, has subsided, leaving a noticeable quiet punctuated by a few rousing songbirds and the occasional tropical cackle of a pileated woodpecker.

More mysteries present themselves. Stumps of young hardwoods gnawed a foot off the ground would appear to be the work of a beaver. But Crossen thinks the marks are much too sharp, more likely the work of an ax.

A shrub that has yet to flower could be witch hazel or spicebush. Crossen and Nicholas both pinch twigs, hoping for a telltale whiff.

"Kinda has an astringent smell," Nicholas says.

"That would be more like witch hazel," Taggart says.

Crossen's nose finds differently: "It has a very citrusy odor." Down the trail, Taggart finds a slightly more revealing specimen and rules in favor of Crossen. Spicebush it is.

Taggart solves yet another mystery, this one more bureaucratic than botanic. What's the difference between a "state park," of which North Carolina has 29, and a "state natural area," of which the state now has 17.

A park, Taggart explains, has facilities for recreation. A natural area is set aside more to protect a natural feature. In the case of Lower Haw, he says, those natural features include some rare natural attributes. For starters, it's one of only two places in the country where Septima's clubtail dragonfly is found. It also houses the relatively rare buttercup phacelia and has extensive patches of horsetail, a primitive, reedlike plant that predates flowering plants.

Near the end of our hike, a prime suspect is eliminated from the mystery of the two-leafed sprig. The day had started cold, in the upper 20s. But by noon, it was approaching 50, a brilliant sun making it seem hotter. Seemingly from out of nowhere, we're surrounded by a subtle carpet of spring beauties, emanating from a plant similar to the two-leafed sprig, but not quite.

We watch the delicate white flowers seek out sunlight like so many tiny satellite dishes locking in on a signal. As they're inclined to do, the spring beauties trigger an automatic smile.

No mystery in that.

Staff writer Joe Miller can be reached at 812-8450 or jmiller@newsobserver.com.

Exploring: The Lower Haw River State Natural Area is being incorporated into the state parks system. Thus, it'll take a little more determination to explore the property until the state improves access. For now, the best way into the property is from the south, along the east bank. Off eastbound U.S. 64, park on the gravel access road just east of the Haw bridge. Walk under the bridge and pick up the trail, headed north.

Saturday: A better way to explore the property is on Saturday's Triangle Land Conservancy guided hike. The hike begins at 10 a.m. from the U.S. 64 access described. Hike leaders will be John Taggart, resource management specialist with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, and David Cook (the author of "The Piedmont Almanac -- The Central Region: A Guide to the Natural World," not the Eno River State Park superintendent).

Hike info: 833-3662. More info: on the Lower Haw River State Natural Area, www.tlc-nc.org.