Durham to Raleigh on the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail

RIverdave Owen

The News and Observer

October 28, 2012

“What a delightful sight,” I said to myself. Standing beneath the colossal foliage of a umbrella magnolia tree, I felt both charmed and shifted.  Around me grew a half acre patch of small to medium tree trunks, exploding with jumbo leaves. In all my days of Piedmont exploring, this was a unique experience.  

I imagined at any moment an exotic animal would poke its head down through the branches and connect with me eye to eye.  But instead, the squawk of a common blue jay brought me out of my reverie.  The branches overhead swayed as the bird took off.

This was my introduction to the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail in May of this year.  I knew that the umbrella magnolia was indeed a native species to the Carolina Piedmont. In the past I had noticed it growing in small patches as treelets, scattered here and there in remote corners of the Neuse River Valley.  To now come across such a large assemblage of these mature trees was an enhanced encounter. 

For a number of years I had been aware of work on the 900 mile North Carolina Mountains to Sea Trail, but only of late had I determined to walk a section.  The recent completion of a sixty mile stretch from Durham to Raleigh was the motivation I needed to get moving.  

I had also just finished a one year treatment program for Lyme Disease.  I needed a challenge to help me rise up, stretch my legs and reclaim my energy after a year of limited activity.  

I envisioned this sixty mile stretch to be walkable in a series of ten mile, single day hikes.  No overnight backing yet for me, as I carried only a daypack with lunch and water.  As the trail closely followed the contour of the south shore of Falls Lake, I often found a refreshingly cool breeze sweeping my path as I walked.  

Falls Lake is a curiosity to me.  I hold very mixed feelings as to its authenticity.  Formally the terrain was a vibrant, natural river corridor with abundant native flora and fauna.  Since 1978 it has been transformed into a gigantic, 28 mile long reservoir with the erection of a 2000 foot cement dam across the Neuse River.  

When I finally rounded the lake’s last cove on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the dam suddenly loomed into view for the first time.  After walking amidst the shady forest, at times stopping to rest and take in the serene waters of the lake, it proved to be a real shock to abruptly confront a mass of concrete dissecting the river from shore to shore. 

My jarring reaction reminded me of a moment fifteen years earlier. After traveling 2000 miles on the Amazon River, my boat finally rounded a bend in the mangrove forested delta.  The skyline of the modern Brazilian city of Belem suddenly stretched out before me as a string of tinted glass skyscrapers.  Every one onboard, including myself, gasped for breath ...

I find myself in sympathy with the philosophy of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and our state officials who planned and developed this route along the southern shore of Falls Lake Reservoir.  But we must respect and pay homage to the myriad of native life forms that were sacrificed to create this artificial reservoir for the convenience of a growing human population center. 

At the same time, it behooves us to make the best of this ecologically disturbed reality. We must ensure that the these drinking waters remain as pollution free as possible with land buffers managed by our state park system and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  

And for those of us who live inland from the Atlantic Coast, we can now enjoy the calming vistas of a wide expanse of open water while walking from Durham to Raleigh. 

Photo by Mary Nation:  Riverdave standing under umbrella magnolias on the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake Reservoir