This is the story of an order of Episcopal nuns, a remote corner of southern Appalachia, and a commitment to teaching young minds. Bridging the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, to a quiet hollow in Bat Cave, the story began more than a century ago. And now it will go on forever.

“The Sisters were seeking a place to get away and recharge, so with some relatives in this area, they decided to come down to western North Carolina,” said Sister Teresa Martin, Superior of the Community of the Transfiguration.

That was in 1901. Just three years earlier, Mother Eva Lee Matthews and Sister Beatrice Henderson founded the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati. The women’s ministry focused on working with mothers and children in the inner city in an effort to help them survive the rigors of urban life at the turn of the 20th century.

“Those first few years were terribly stressful, as you can imagine,” Sister Teresa said. “So they needed a place where they could go to be rejuvenated.”

The two sisters enjoyed three weeks in the shadow of Chimney Rock at the Esmeralda Inn. So entranced by the region’s natural beauty, they began to look for property in the area to which they could return in the coming years.

“They found an old farmhouse off of Highway 9 and rented it for $25 a year,” said Sister Teresa.

While the home was charming, it was the surrounding landscape that was truly revitalizing. Tucked between the Rocky Broad River and the steep slopes of the Hickory Nut Gorge, the stunning natural beauty was exactly what they were seeking to soothe their spirits.

“They kept coming down for rejuvenation, as did other sisters who joined the order,” Sister Teresa said.

After a few years, they purchased the house and several acres of land surrounding it. “They began bringing children down from Cincinnati to give them an experience out of the city,” she said.

Helping the community then

“Sister Beatrice, the second Superior of the Community of the Transfiguration, had a special passion for the mountains and the mountain people,” said Sister Teresa. “Right from the start, she began having wonderful relationships with the people living in the mountains.”

During the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Sister Beatrice and the order began buying land from local residents who were at risk of losing their property due to financial hardship.

“She wanted to give them some substance to live on. That’s how we ended up with how many acres we did — more than 400.”

These days, the sisters make the journey from Cincinnati to Bat Cave with less frequency. But their connection to their beloved mountain land remains as strong now as it was a century ago, as does their yearning to give back to the local community.

Worried about their long-term ability to care for their land, members of the Community of the Transfiguration began discussions with Tom Fanslow, Land Protection Director at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), in 2008.

“We knew we wanted to keep it from development. We wanted it to stay as pristine as possible,” explained Sister Teresa.

A long engagement

Figuring out exactly how to do that, while also remaining true to the order’s values, proved to be a lengthy process. But it was more than worthwhile.

“There is a folkloric aspect to it. Some of our projects, like this one, take a very long time. You just have to have patience. If you do, good things will happen,” said Fanslow.

“Tom helped us figure out what we wanted to do to protect this property, to envision the potential and possibilities,” said Sister Teresa. “It was a long process, and we discussed a lot of ideas.”

Nearly a decade after the first conversation, their collective vision was finally realized when the Community of the Transfiguration placed 410 acres into a permanent conservation easement with CMLC.

Hosting more than five miles of water resources — including two miles of the Rocky Broad River and several major waterfalls — and teeming with natural heritage, such as cliffs, rock outcroppings, and rare flora and fauna, the tract had long been identified as the conservancy’s highest conservation priority in the Upper Broad River watershed.

Now permanently protected, the property will forever safeguard clean water, provide harbor for many plant and animal species, and preserve the scenic views within the Hickory Nut Gorge.

The project was made possible with funding from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund as well as generous private donations, including contributions from the Community of the Transfiguration.

“There were a lot of bumps in the road to get here, but it has been a joy and privilege to be part of this wonderful organization,” said Sister Teresa. “We (and CMLC) are kind of married to each other now, but it was a long engagement.”

Helping the community now and forever

But conservation of the sisters’ land is only one half of the story.

“Right from the start, our ministry has focused on education of the children,” explained Sister Teresa.

In addition to the protection of the property’s abundant natural resources, Fanslow understood that the order desired the land to be used in a way that supports its mission of education and service.

To achieve that mission, the Community of the Transfiguration conveyed ownership of 368 acres of the now protected property to CMLC to establish the Hickory Nut Gorge Teaching and Research Reserve, continuing the sisters’ legacy of education.

The land will be utilized as a multi-discipline outdoor classroom for students and researchers from local schools, colleges and other educational programs.

Currently, Warren Wilson College faculty are instructing students on the tract. Dr. J.J. Apodaca and his students have used the property to gather data for his work on the genetics of the green salamander (Aeneus aneides), which is endangered in North Carolina.

Muddy Sneakers and Lake Lure Classical Academy have also expressed interest in hosting students at the new teaching and research reserve.

Said Fanslow, “the potential for how this project can give back, not just in intrinsic conservation value, but to educate the next generation, is immense.”

“It is wonderful to be able to find this use for it. We still have a great love for the community,” said Sister Teresa. “Our roots here in the mountains are deep.”

Now, and forever, those roots will hold tightly to their cherished land — and keep growing the minds of generations seeking to learn from it.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at 


"I’ve always been fascinated by waterfalls. There’s something about them that excites our senses far beyond most other natural subjects,” said Kevin Adams, acclaimed Western North Carolina outdoor photographer and author.

“Some say it’s the sight of moving water, some the sound.”

Adams also suggested that many enthusiasts — known as “waterfallers” — cite a theory that negative ions created by falling water provide special emotional stimulus and feelings of tranquility.

“You won’t find many mainstream scientists supporting such notion,” he conceded.

“I suspect it has something to do with the fact that waterfalls affect four of our senses. We feel the cool spray. We smell the freshness. We hear the falling water. And, of course, we see the beauty.”

As a child, Adams’ family vacations were always to the North Carolina mountains in search of waterfalls. Adams, now 55, first got hold of a camera as a birthday present from his wife, Patricia, in 1985.

“Since I give everything I have or nothing at all, that camera was going to sit on a shelf and collect dust, or it was going to change my life,” Adams said. “You can guess which one happened."

In the three decades since, Adams has been seeing — and capturing — the beauty of those falls he first saw as a child from behind the lens of a camera.

After seeking out and shooting more than 1,000 waterfalls in WNC during that time, Adams became the preeminent waterfall expert and photographer of our region. He recently released the third edition of his book “North Carolina’s Waterfalls.” The hiking and photography guide is the resounding authority on the subject.

“I’m happier pointing my camera at a cascading mountain than at any other nature subject," he said. "I just can’t tell you why.”

While Adams revels in the beauty of the waterfalls that he captures with his camera, he never takes for granted that such natural splendor can be quickly tarnished or lost if not protected.

He often utilizes his photography to advocate for land conservation efforts, masterfully showcasing the grandeur of our natural treasures in his images. Adams hopes they will inspire others to adopt a yearning to preserve them.

“Every acre that is protected is important. And when those acres are along streams, particularly in the headwaters, it leads to permanent protection of the water resources,” Adams said. “There are many cases of local organizations preventing development that would have destroyed waterfalls and lowered the water quality of the streams.

“Specifically, I know of dozens of beautiful waterfalls on pristine streams that would be at risk if not for the work of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.”

Read on to find out about the waterfalls conserved by CMLC, and how they came to be protected. As an additional resource, check out Adams’ impeccable book for more information and directions to many of these falls. You can find it, and more information on WNC waterfalls, at While you’re at it, thank him for his help in protecting these falls, too.

Little Bearwallow Falls

Little Bearwallow Falls requires a good rainfall to show off its full glory, but its 100-plus-foot height makes it the tallest waterfall protected by CMLC. This waterfall slides over an impressive exposed rock face that forms the steep walls of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge in Gerton.

After purchasing the falls and its surrounding 138 acres in 2013, CMLC constructed a public trail to its base the following year. The waterfall is now one of the highlight destinations in CMLC’s budding trail network that connects more protected lands, including Bearwallow Mountain and Florence Nature Preserve.

Connestee Falls

For more than a century, Transylvania County’s 85-foot Connestee Falls has been a popular natural roadside attraction on U.S. Highway 276. The most recent private owner of the falls, Dick Smith of Brevard, sought out CMLC to protect the falls and its seven surrounding acres with a conservation easement in 2008.

Smith also sold the property to the land trust, who conveyed it to Transylvania County the following year for the establishment of Connestee Falls Park, which opened in 2011.

The park actually hosts three waterfalls. Carson Creek flows over Connestee Falls, the largest of the three both in height and width. Immediately adjacent is the 40-foot Batson Creek Falls, which converges with Connestee Falls to form a narrow flume — a third falls known as Silver Slip.

“God made that waterfall for all of us to enjoy,” said Smith. “Now it's available to everybody, now and forever.”

DuPont Forest

DuPont State Recreational Forest is widely known for its treasure trove of locally beloved waterfalls. Specifically three of them — Hooker Falls, Wintergreen Falls and Grassy Creek Falls — were within the initial 7,600-acre land acquisition in 1996 that led to the creation of the state forest.

Through its leadership from state Rep. Chuck McGrady, CMLC helped facilitate The Conservation Fund (TCF) and state of North Carolina to seek purchase of land that today comprises three-quarters of DuPont.

“Land conservancies like CMLC often serve as vital intermediaries in the process of securing important protection,” Adams said. “They know the region better than anyone, what needs to be protected, and they have the local infrastructure to make it happen.”


Such was the case again with the recent establishment of the new Headwaters State Forest in southern Transylvania County. CMLC once more sought partnership with TCF and the N.C. Forest Service to seek conservation of 8,000 acres comprising the headwaters of the East Fork of the French Broad River.

The newest state forest hosts three significant waterfalls: Reece Place Falls, Gravely Falls and East Fork Falls. The latter you can easily visit alongside East Fork Road. The two former falls, which are particularly picturesque, do not yet have public access. But don’t despair, it’s coming soon.

Conservation partners have acquired 5,000 acres for Headwaters State Forest to date. When the remaining 3,000 are added to protection — which is on pace to occur in the next few years — and management strategies determined, the N.C. Forest Service will enable access to these falls. They’ll be worth the wait.

Green River Preserve

Standing directly underneath the icy cold waters of Uncles Falls on Green River Preserve (GRP), a summer camp in southern Henderson County, yelling “polar bear” three times has been a decades-old rite of passage for camp kids. The falls and 2,600 acres of GRP is protected by a conservation easement with CMLC.

While private, CMLC sometimes hosts guided hikes to Uncles Falls, and GRP occasionally hosts access dates for members of the land trust when camp is not in session.

Siller Falls

The 5-foot Siller Falls isn’t especially impressive when compared to others highlighted in this column. But its location — down the mountain and beneath the Blue Ridge Escarpment in Polk County — makes it special.

Technically located in the Piedmont, Vaughn Creek has the enchanting feel of a bona fide mountain stream. Formerly the site of a mill, you can view Siller Falls from the Vaughn Creek Greenway, a half-mile walking path that parallels the creek. CMLC facilitated acquisition of 9 acres and development of the greenway in coordination with the town of Tryon in 2012.


Transylvania County’s Johnson Branch and its upper tributaries on the slope of See Off Mountain harbor an impressive bounty of scenic waterfalls. The falls are on private property on land protected by a CMLC conservation easement. The landowners graciously host a CMLC-guided hike each year for land conservation supporters wishing to see them.

Rockbrook Camp for Girls, also in Transylvania County and protected by a CMLC conservation easement, hosts two waterfalls: Rockbrook Camp Falls and Stick Biscuit Falls. Like GRP, the camp is private but occasionally hosts CMLC-guided hikes.

Pool Creek Falls

Pool Creek Falls slides down nearly 100 feet of rock within the backcountry portion of Chimney Rock State Park. The falls is within Worlds Edge, a 1,568-acre tract that CMLC and partners purchased for addition to the state park in 2005. While no public access to the falls currently exists, recent Connect NC bond funding will soon help initial development of a day-use area for visitors to Worlds Edge.

Because of the forward thinking of many landowners, agencies and organizations who sought to ensure the continued beauty of these natural wonders into the future, each of these conserved waterfalls will remain as beautiful as they appear in Adams’ photos today.

“Local land conservancies provide a vital role in protecting waterfalls and lands around them,” Adams said. “As a waterfaller, CMLC and our region’s land trusts are my heroes.”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

This month I have had the great joy of honoring several people who unselfishly make our community a better place. These individuals have donated their time and passion to improving our region through donating their time and talents for the greater good.

Volunteers in our community have my utmost gratitude and respect, and I wish to extend my appreciation to each of them.

The commitment of two volunteers in particular has been especially impactful to me, and while you might not know it yet, to you, too.

Their selflessness and humility is endlessly inspiring. Their passion and work ethic is astonishing.

Through their dedicated volunteerism, they have become my close friends and colleagues. But most of all, they have become my role models.

I first met Al and Barb Pung in 2014. I must admit it was somewhat of an embarrassing first encounter, one that I remain grateful that they do not begrudge. They arrived at the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) office for an appointment to volunteer, and our staff had made a terrible mistake:

We forgot that they were coming.

An inquiry circulated throughout the office to determine what volunteer help was needed. On short notice, it wasn't immediately clear what might be best suited to both our needs and their interests.

The Pungs, retirees who had recently relocated from Michigan to the mountains of WNC, were open-minded. “We're here to help,” said Al with an infectious smile. Barb added with the utmost sincerity, “We'll do whatever you need.”

Having no shortage of projects in need of assistance, I was excited when word reached me that a kind-hearted couple had arrived to lend a hand. I presented them a project that had been on the docket for years.

The task at hand was to create a print and digital archive of CMLC's news and media documenting the past two decades of conserving land in our community. That may not sound like a critical task, but I assure you that it has long been one of our organization's most pressing needs.

Its benefits include the ability to efficiently research past conservation projects for our publications, outreach and, most notably, this newspaper column. It will also ultimately enable the showcasing of land protection accomplishments and the benefits of that work to the community — available to anyone who wishes to view it in person or online.

The project was tedious, to say the least. It is no wonder — nor is there any shame — that many in the past have been less than engaged with the task and it has long remained unaccomplished. Its scale was rather daunting. Conservation-minded folks typically like to get outside frequently to enjoy nature, and this undertaking required significant time spent at a computer and scanner.

It would be more than fair to call it a “rainy day” project. Except that it requires a whole lot of sunny days, too, and more total days that I dare speculate.

Nevertheless, the Pungs were undaunted. Over the next year, they clipped and cropped, scanned and cataloged, and organized and printed — creating stunningly beautiful scrapbooks for each calendar year — hundreds and hundreds of articles and stories.

All together, Al and Barb volunteered more than 700 hours to the project. And they are still going strong in pursuit of finishing it.

My graciousness to them for their help never went unexpressed, yet it was always met with humility.

“It's no problem,” both routinely exclaimed, constantly attempting to dismiss praise. Their selflessness was, and remains, truly extraordinary.

Not only was their work ethic and lasting commitment abundantly evident, their modesty was too.

Fulfilled solely by helping our organization and supporting its mission with their time and talents, Al and Barb truly sought nothing in return other than to keep up our work saving the places in our region that they love.

Through the process of tackling the archiving project, the Pungs became remarkably educated about land conservation in our region, reading each and every article along the way.

“I love to read. I find all of it fascinating,” Al explained. “I read for several hours a day.”

Few others now possess the breadth of knowledge about the recent history of natural resource protection in our surrounding counties as well as an understanding of the processes, partnerships and community collaboration involved in keeping our mountains untarnished.

The self-paced education on protecting our area's land and water resources served to deepen the Pungs yearning to help the organization through volunteerism.

The selfless pair have volunteered an additional 230 hours in support of the organization's Conservation Celebration, an annual event that raises awareness and funds for its natural resource, trails and stewardship work in the community. But the Pungs had even more passion and energy to give.

Last fall, a co-worker and I launched the “CMLC Trails Crew,” an initiative to more consistently and skillfully care for our budding public hiking trails in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge. Retention and availability of volunteers for trails is often problematic due to the highly technical level of the work and challenging conditions.

Stewarding trails involves carrying heavy loads, often up steep slopes. It requires the swinging of sharp tools for hours on end. Days at a time are spent making gravel — used to harden the trail surface of stairs or wet areas — by hand, crushing big rocks into little ones.

In many cases, a long difficult hike is required just to get to the work site. Volunteers often swear that these trips are uphill both ways — and sometimes they are.

And if the activity itself is not strenuous enough, hazards of working outside intensify the challenge.

Volunteers brave poison ivy, snakes and ticks. Humid air and hot temperatures in the spring and summer make the physical labor doubling taxing. Frozen earth in the winter is particularly demoralizing when a tool bounces back upon striking the ground, making nary a dent in the soil.

Simply put, working on trails is hard work. Perhaps especially for that reason, Al and Barb willingly offered their time, energy and passion to help out. And like their previous — and ongoing — volunteer contributions, they went “all in.”

In just six months, the Pungs volunteered an amazing — and seemingly back breaking — 240 hours toward improving CMLC's hiking trails for all to enjoy.

They will tell you that they're just getting started, too. This spring, they broke ground on their new home only a stone's throw away from CMLC-conserved Bearwallow Mountain.

“We'll live 885 feet from the trailhead,” said Al, his precision appropriately reflecting his high attention to detail. This proximity to CMLC's trails and conserved lands will even further inspire the couple to keep lending a hand.

“We will see Bearwallow every day from our house,” said Barb. “We love that mountain. It's one of our favorite places, and we're so glad it is protected.”

All told, the Pungs have volunteered more than 1,200 hours — and counting — helping conservation efforts in just the past 18 months. That averages out to about 15 hours a week during that span. Wow.

CMLC and our entire community owe great gratitude to Al and Barb for their unwavering passion and consistent generosity that makes this region a better place. If you see them around — whether it be with a newspaper or trail tool in hand — please tell them “thank you."

I guarantee it will make them blush, and they'll wish you hadn't. But do it anyway. They deserve it.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at

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