Fall is in the air — the relentless heat is finally dissipating, leaf color is starting to show and that longing to get outside and enjoy the beauty that autumn offers in Western North Carolina will soon become insatiable.

If you’re wondering where to get outside this season, or perhaps seeking some extra incentive to start exploring, you’re in luck. This weekend, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy releases the much anticipated new line-up for its popular White Squirrel Hiking Challenge program.

CMLC’s Hiking Challenge 4, sponsored by Pardee UNC Healthcare, features a list of eight hikes and walks — this version even includes an option to bike or paddle — among the newest trails and most spectacular lands protected by the local land trust.

The program was first launched in 2011. Since then, more than 450 intrepid outdoor enthusiasts have completed the series of hikes that showcase CMLC’s new land conservation and trail development in our region. Completers were as young as 4 and as much as 81 years old. Experience levels varying widely too — the hikes are chosen to appeal to introductory hikers as well as experienced adventurers.

In total, CMLC’s Hiking Challenge has inspired more than 5,000 separate hikes taken on recently protected lands and trails in our region.

The Pardee & CMLC White Squirrel Hiking Challenge, now in its fourth iteration, strives to introduce or reinforce the human connection to the natural world, and the importance of preserving it. Experiencing conserved landscapes in person helps to form a deep relationship with the land and ultimately a yearning to protect more of our region’s natural heritage.

Completers of all eight hikes in the program receive a certificate of completion, a beloved white squirrel embroidered hiking patch and a $10 gift certificate to Mast General Store. Most of all, all participants support CMLC’s mission of protecting our region’s treasured natural landscapes.

Interested in taking the Challenge? Visit carolinamountain.org/hc4 to enroll.

Here is a sneak peak of the hikes in the new Hiking Challenge Version 4:

Wildcat Rock

Ascend CMLC’s newest trail in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, beyond 100-foot Little Bearwallow Falls, to an expansive view atop a scenic rock outcropping.

Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower

Owned by the US Forest Service, the breathtaking vantage point from this historic fire lookout near the Blue Ridge Parkway provides a birds-eye view from thousands of acres of CMLC-conserved land.

Rhododendron Lake Nature Park

An easy “walk in the park” circumnavigates historic Rhododendron Lake in Laurel Park, showcasing a restored stream.

DuPont: Grassy Creek Falls

Escape the crowds by hiking to DuPont’s beautiful, lesser-known waterfall.

Bearwallow Mountain

A repeat favorite, climb the most iconic and scenic peak in Henderson County to enjoy a 360 degree view from the summit meadow.

Headwaters State Forest

Take an adventure along the Foothills Trail in NC’s newest state forest to a stunning but secret mountain vista.

The Park at Flat Rock

Get outdoors without leaving town: walk, run or bike the loop trail in Flat Rock’s new village park.

Little Bearwallow Mountain

Climb beyond Wildcat Rock to the top of Little Bearwallow on the second part of CMLC’s newest trail in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge.

French Broad River Paddle/Float

Substitute one of the hikes above for a float or paddle on the venerable French Broad River, starting or finishing at the new CMLC-facilitated Horse Shoe River Access Park.

For the past 5½ years I have had the great fortune to hear dozens of stories from individuals and families about the meaningful connection that they hold with their land and this region. Even better, I have had the opportunity to share those stories — tales of why protecting the natural heritage of our mountains is so deeply important to them — with you.

My hope is that you have been moved by them and after reading, developed an increasing sense of why conservation of our lands and waters is so important. And why protecting these mountains means so much to so many.

Busy juggling my duties at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) of communications and outreach, writing stories, and also developing our trails program, I have failed to take an opportunity to look back on the many interviews I’ve conducted, images captured, and stories written (not to mention deadlines missed — my continued apologies to the editor).

Now I would like to reflect on what they have meant to me, and more importantly, how they may have inspired you. If you are new to this column or haven’t been reading it since its inception, perhaps you will consider going back to read the stories of those I’ve conveyed. And even if you have, consider going back to reread some of your favorites. They’re all available at BlueRidgeNow.com as well as CMLC’s website, carolinamountain.org (under the tab Protected Areas and “Stories”).

One of my first stories narrated the impact of first-ever CMLC conservation easement donor John Humphrey. I wrote of Humphrey back when he was just a young duck at the age of 95. Earlier this summer, he became a centenarian. His contributions to this region and its natural places have only become more storied since I first met him.

Each day I view the 150-year old oak tree named in his honor outside CMLC’s office building, and recall writing how it appropriately symbolizes John: “Roots that run deep in the land while its trunk stands strong among ever-present change. Its branches are forever reaching for new heights. It's a perfect tribute to John Humphrey, a hero of conservation in Western North Carolina.”

One of many memories that I cherish is sitting on the cabin porch with Sandy Schenck — one of our community’s great storytellers — and absorbing the lore of his Green River Preserve property, of which 2,600 acres is protected by CMLC. I chronicled Schenck’s legends and history at least three times, yet many more remain unwritten.

I remain amused at the account I wrote of P.T. Barnum as the responsible entity for bringing white squirrels to Western North Carolina via CMLC-conserved Rockbrook Camp. This ruffled the feathers of a few Transylvanians, but at least when I get disgruntled letters I know that someone is paying attention.

I always maintained that I’m merely conveying stories that were told to me by others, which means that some of my columns were surely more of legend. It turns out that the disagreement over how those endearing white critters came to our mountains only adds to their charm.

Many of the individuals who I wrote about became my close friends and mentors.

Tommy Hartzog, who conserved 96 acres of Youngs Mountain in Lake Lure through CMLC and continues to help me while developing a trail network on the peak, taught me to have patience to achieve what is important to you.

“Good things like this tend to take an awful long time,” Hartzog said. “But it is worth the wait.”

Rick Merrill was a developer turned conservationist who claimed to be “atoning for his sins” through his deep involvement in CMLC. He not only protected eight acres of his own property with a conservation easement, he helped me become more deeply rooted in this community by counseling me on the purchase of my home.

Al and Barb Pung, who volunteered more than 1,500 collective hours of their time to CMLC in just the past two years, have become particularly dear friends to me, not to mention personal role models and heroes.

Speaking of friends, the most difficult column I authored was just earlier this year. I shared the story about the loss of my dear friend Kayah Gaydish. I was overcome by emotion typing each paragraph as tears streamed down from my eyes and onto the keyboard. No one was so selflessly devoted to caring for our region's trails and public lands as Kayah. No one was such a devoted friend to so many.

I was devastated by her unexpected death, but honored to tell you about such an amazing human being. Kayah made me a better steward of our mountains and trails but also a better friend and person. I hope she inspired you to be the same.

Bearwallow Mountain was the topic or setting of nearly a dozen of my stories. I enjoyed researching and writing those tales the most, as that mountain is sacred to so many — including me. My fascination with Bearwallow will only continue to grow, as will my longing to keep protecting it.

CMLC’s efforts — and those of our many partners, community supporters, and its generous landowners — have led to the permanent protection of that tall, venerable summit where the views seem to go on forever. Subsequently protected are the countless memories and stories attached to that iconic peak.

Moreover, the conservation of the mountain also led to its permanent public accessibility by trail. It also proved to be the catalyst for a budding public trail network in the Hickory Nut Gorge so that our entire community may forever continue to visit and seek inspiration and rejuvenation from its natural treasures — all in our proverbial backyard.

I have become increasingly convinced that getting people out on protected land and touching it, feeling it, and being deeply impacted by it is one of the most effective means of fostering a connection and appreciation with the natural world. I can write stories about these amazing places — which allows others to perhaps inspire you — but nothing compares to visiting these places yourself and allowing the landscape to permeate into your soul.

In this column I previously wrote of trails and parks, citing a report from the soon to be century-old National Park Service, which insisted that “trails can enrich the quality of life for individuals, make communities more livable, and protect, nurture and showcase America's grandeur by traversing areas of natural beauty, distinctive geography, historic significance and ecological diversity.”

That report concluded “trails are important for the nation's health, economy, resource protection and education." I believe this more than ever.

So convinced am I of this, and so passionate to help further facilitate access to these protected places, that I will will soon be dedicating my all of my time to them in a new role as CMLC’s trails and recreational lands director.

In October, I will be passing the reins of Stories of the Land to CMLC’s new Communications and Marketing Manager Katie Onheiber. She will continue sharing stories about our region’s protected landscape and its meaning to those who live, work, and play here. I’m looking forward to hearing those stories, and you should be, too.

Thank you to everyone who shared their stories with me and the memories and inspiration that resulted, and thank you to all those that read them. I’ll see you out on the trail!


Activist and self-trained botanist helped to launch Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy

“Her ready and slightly mischievous smile,” said Kieran Roe, “was the first thing that struck me about Anne Ulinski.”

We will now miss that smile dearly. Ulinski passed away earlier this month at the age of 94. But we have many reasons to smile ourselves when remembering the profound impact that she had on our region.

“I really wanted to be a part of the community,” Ulinski told the Times-News when she moved to Hendersonville in 1981. “Because this is my community now.”

Ulinski, a longtime Hendersonville resident and community activist, lived a life defined by public service, optimism and compassion. She drove a Red Cross truck transporting wounded soldiers during World War II. She volunteered in clinics while living in Italy and Liberia. She tutored underprivileged children her first several years in Hendersonville. She was a mother of five.

"She was an amazing woman," said Carol Freeman, Ulinski’s first child, of Hendersonville.

"In getting to know Anne, I felt I’d met a kindred spirit,” added Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). “She had a driving passion for places of beauty and inspiration in this region.”

"She loved the mountains and the natural beauty of Western North Carolina,” said Freeman. “But when she first came down here, many would now be surprised that she couldn’t really identify any plants.”

A lifelong voracious learner, the region’s beauty inspired Ulinski to become a self-trained botanist. She then became a particularly active member of the Western Carolina Botanical Club.

Ulinski’s increasing love of the natural world led her to extensively monitor and document plants at several locations in the county, including Jackson Park, Mud Creek, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, and Historic Johnson Farm.

In 1991, she became involved in a grassroots community effort to locate and identify the diverse flora and fauna for the entire county. She and peers raised funds to hire a biologist to produce what became the Natural Heritage Inventory of Henderson County.

Once documentation was complete, a small group that included Ulinski decided to take the initiative one step further. Seeking to protect the rarest occurrences of plants and their habitats identified within the inventory, she and a group led by Lela McBride set forth to establish a local land trust.

That small group soon became the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. Ulinski wrote one of the first checks to the organization so that it could establish a bank account and become official.

During one of those early meetings that led to its formation, McBride tapped Ulinski on the shoulder and whispered into her ear, granting her the job of secretary of their committee. It was a symbolic gesture bestowing Ulinski with responsibility to take the reins of the organization and move it forward.

“It was like the passing of the baton,” said Freeman. “For the next five years, she ran the organization out of the trunk of her car.”

CMLC hired Roe, its first — and for several years its only — paid staff member in 1999.

“Anne had left the board shortly before then, but was still very attached to the work of the organization for which she had been responsible for initiating,” Roe recalled. “She would stop by the office occasionally and cheerfully provide leads and suggestions. Anne’s gentle and steady encouragement helped me begin to understand the goals and priorities of the fledgling land trust she had helped get off the ground a few years earlier.

“I got the sense that Anne was most happy getting good work done rather than sitting in board meetings. In fact, she had initiated discussions with Tom and Glenna Florence, acquaintances through the botany club, that led to their decision to donate their 600-acre property in Gerton to CMLC, one of the organization’s first conservation projects.“

Ulinski’s dedication to the new land trust continued to be fueled by her love of native plants. Of the many locales she botanized, she most loved to explore the Oklawaha Bog behind the Chanteloup Estates neighborhood where she resided.

The bog became one of the most sacred of all places to Ulinski. “She would walk there every day,” said Freeman.

Eventually it was discovered that the bog contained the bunched arrowhead flower, one of the rarest plants in not just the county, but the entire nation. Ulinski was particularly hopeful that CMLC, the land trust that she helped establish to protect significant natural heritage, could do just that: save the Oklawaha Bog.

“She told me that she was not going to die until that land was protected,” Freeman said.

After many years of working toward its conservation, CMLC and partners purchased the bog for permanent protection in 2010. To return the property to its original wetland and stream habitat as well reestablish a thriving population of bunched arrowhead, the partners coordinated its full restoration several years later.

“I was very happy that Anne was still able to witness the conservation and restoration of the place most near and dear to her,” said Roe. “It felt like a happy ending to a story that Anne had started 15 years earlier. It was a fitting example of cooperation and persistence that Anne had first brought to CMLC as founder and role model.”

Because Ulinski’s heath declined in recent years, she was less able to keep up with the ongoing conservation work of the organization that she had helped start. But when Freeman relayed the recent milestone of 30,000 protected acres, Ulinski was teeming with pride and elation.

“It was just beyond what she could imagine,” said Freeman. “CMLC’s work was near and dear to her heart. She told me, ‘This is the most important work I have ever done.’”

Prior to Ulinski’s death, CMLC honored her with the naming of another recently conserved and restored mountain bog in Flat Rock. Appropriately, the Anne Ulinski Bog also hosts the bunched arrowhead flower.

Three and a half decades after she arrived in Western North Carolina, Anne more than achieved her original goal. She became, and will forever remain, an inseparable part of our community. She had 30,000 reasons for that mischievous smile.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.


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