This is a beautiful time of year and there’s always something new!

We’ve been having some beautiful cold days lately, following some very dreary, rainy days. The afternoon temperatures have been rising almost to sixty, and the air has seemed especially clear. The last two hours of the full moon before sunrise on Wednesday were especially wonderful, with the moon lighting up the ridges like a searchlight before setting behind the Big Frog.

When we get to this time of year, the old things seem to be a special delight, like sitting on the porch watching the sunset and talking things over by the fire. While Blue Ridge isn’t deserted in the winter the way it used to be years ago, it still gets significantly quieter out our way, with many folks sitting out the winter in Florida and some of the weekend people skipping the days when we’re having “mountain weather” – rain, mist, and fog. We seem to enjoy those days as much as we ever did, so I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I learned a long time ago, it’s always beautiful outdoors, if you can make yourself get out there.

We’ve continued our program of winter hiking. Yesterday, we were in the vicinity of Carter’s Lake. While I’ve shown property over there many times, I’ve never driven up to the visitor’s center. I was surprised to find a very nice interpretive center, and the view from high above the lake was quite impressive. It would be a nice place for a picnic in warmer weather, and there’s a lot of potential for dramatic photographs of the various parts of the lake. After that, we drove over to New Echota, the Cherokee Capital, between Calhoun and Resaca. I never realized it until driving over there, but it really isn’t far from Carter’s Lake. Unfortunately, it is closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so we didn’t get to see it.

The week before, we visited the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, which is about forty miles east of Atlanta, off I-20 and south of the little town of Mansfield. Elliott, who was born in 1906 and died in 2000, was the first director of the Georgia Fish & Game Commission (now the DNR). He was also Southeastern Field Editor for Outdoor Life magazine for the last fifty years of his life. He’s probably best known for the two books he wrote on turkey hunting, and the interpretive center makes it clear that he truly lived a life to be envied, if you love the outdoors. He was a friend and frequent guest of Robert Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate, and he hunted with Presidents from Eisenhower to Carter. It’s a beautiful property, with many public fishing lakes and a mix of upland hardwoods and bottom land. The interpretive center is quite impressive, with displays of Charlie’s fishing tackle, some hunting equipment, and many photographs. What was most interesting to me as a writer was a reconstruction of his study, which appeared to contain every book published in his lifetime on the outdoor experience. The Center hosts many educational programs, and would be an ideal place to introduce a young person to hunting and fishing.

The Georgia DNR recently published an online article about Hellbender conservation in north Georgia. It recounted some of the results of research involving sampling of local streams for Hellbender DNA. The Hellbender, basically a very large salamander – they can grow to two feet – is a bellweather species for water quality. Because they do not have gills, instead breathing through their skin, they can’t tolerate water that is less than pristine. The results of the study were disappointing in some ways, because it found no evidence of Hellbender DNA in northwest Georgia streams, even those in which they have been observed previously, and even those streams that are part of the Tennessee River drainage (their prime local range). I understand from talking to Tennessee researchers that the likeliest place to find them in our area is the Hiawassee River, downstream of the powerhouse. By the way, there’s a myth that they are poisonous, which isn’t true. (I think people confuse them with Gila Monsters, which they superficially resemble.) What is true is that they are real slimy, especially for a salamander.

We’ve had some interesting incidental sightings lately, including a red fox on My Mountain Road, early on a foggy morning. The morning of the full moon, we also had a family of deer bedded down in the woods right next to our parking lot. That seemed noteworthy, because with our oak trees not producing, we haven’t seen a deer in our woods for some time. I imagine that they were tired after a night of browsing, because they were reluctant to leave even after we started loading the truck a few feet from them. The sighting that surprised me the most was a Marbled Salamander on a gravel road a few feet away from My Mountain Road. This seems a very unlikely place, given that the book says that they are rarely found more than a few hundred feet from a bottomland creek, and this was close to 2,000 feet on a gravel road. I suppose in this very wet year that there was enough moisture there in the ditch, but how he got there remains a mystery to me, as there are no flowing creeks nearby.

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