Friday, February 24, 2017

Lost Sea of Craighead Caverns

Spelunking, boating, waterfalls, campouts... all fun trips with the family. But what if I said one destination had all of these things!? In the middle of a mountain in east Tennessee is a lake so enormous as to merit the title of America’s largest underground lake in the Guinness Book of World Records. The 4.5 acre Lost Sea is part of an extensive cave system called Craighead Caverns, located near Sweetwater, TN in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (The largest underground, non-subglacial lake in the world is Dragon's Breath Cave in Namibia, 4.9 acres in size.)


The caverns are named for their former owner, Cherokee Chief Craighead. In the “Council Room,” almost a mile from the entrance, a wide range of Indian artifacts have been found, indicating the cave was long used by the Cherokee for habitation and as a meeting place.


Starting with the 1820s, the first white settlers in the Tennessee Valley used the cave for storing potatoes and other vegetables, since the underground temperature is a cool 58° year-round. In subsequent years the cave was utilized by Confederate soldiers, who mined the cave for the saltpeter needed to manufacture gunpowder.

the descent underground

The Lost Sea was discovered in 1905 by a thirteen-year-old boy named Ben Sands. The water level of the lake fluctuates depending on precipitation, and by the time Ben had convinced his father to return to explore his discovery further, the water level had risen and concealed the entrance; local explorers only rediscovered it several years later. Today the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, and although fishing is not allowed, visitors can take a ride on the lake on one of four boats powered by electric motors.


In 1939, off-duty cave guides found the bones of a Pleistocene jaguar. A portion of the remains are now on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while others (and plaster casts of the cat’s tracks) can be viewed at the visitor center. Around this time a mushroom farm was operating near the Historic Entrance in the “Big Room,” and it was in 1947 that the nightclub “Cavern Tavern” operated underground, complete with dance floor. It didn’t seem surprising to hear the cave had also long been used for moonshining and cockfights.

a few of the crawling tour options...

In the 1970s cave divers explored the Lost Sea and discovered several additional rooms that are completely filled with water, totaling more than 13 acres. The full extent of the underground sea has yet to be fully explored.

my spelunker!

In addition to historical relics, the caverns also contain stalactites, stalagmites and a waterfall. However, it’s the presence of cave flowers, rare crystalline structures called anthodites, which resulted in Craighead Caverns being added to the National Park Service list of National Natural Landmarks in 1974. According to the Lost Sea website, Craighead contains 50% of the world’s known formations of anthodites.

sleeping arrangements!

Want to explore the cave for yourself? Various tour packages are available (see website for details), ranging from an hour-long visit of the lake and main rooms, to an overnight “Wild Cave Tour” adventure that includes a cavern tour, various crawling tours in the undeveloped section of the cave, a boat ride on the Lost Sea and an overnight sleepover; this is the option that gets our vote! Roberts and Lauris emerged into the early morning fog absolutely covered in mud, tired from their adventure but with grins on their faces and quite a few stories to tell… It has already been decided that they won’t get to hog all the fun next time!

Thanks to Roberts for use of his photographs!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fort Loudoun

Of the wars that have taken place on American soil in the last 400 years, the one I know least about is the French and Indian War; a recent trip to a TN State Park helped fill in some of the gaps. From 1754 to 1763 the colonies of British America fought against those of New France, both sides supported by Native American allies and military units from Europe in what was the North American portion of the Seven Years’ War.


We were in Tennessee for the weekend and started our exploration in Fort Loudoun, a British colonial-era fort located in Venore, Tennessee. Built in 1756-57 to provide safe haven for Cherokee allies in exchange for their assistance against the French, the fort was one of the first British outposts west of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s named for the Earl of Loudoun, the commander of British forces in North America at the time.


“Relations between the garrison of Fort Loudoun and the local Cherokee inhabitants were initially cordial, but soured in 1758 due to hostilities between Cherokee fighters and European settlers in Virginia and SC. After the massacre of several Cherokee chiefs who were being held hostage at Fort Prince George, the Cherokee laid siege to Fort Loudoun in March 1760. The fort's garrison held out for several months, but diminishing supplies forced its surrender in August 1760. Hostile Cherokees attacked the fort's garrison as it marched back to South Carolina, killing more than two dozen and taking most of the survivors prisoner.” (source here)


Based on detailed descriptions of the design, the fort was excavated during the Great Depression, and the site raised by 17 feet so that the fort could be rebuilt above the water line of what was to be the Tellico Reservoir.  When the Tellico Dam was finally completed in 1979, the Little Tennessee flooded the locations of the Overhill Cherokee towns of Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, Tomotley, Citico, Mialoquo and Tuskegee – but the reconstructed Fort Loudoun remains.


Today Fort Loudoun is managed by the Tennessee State Parks. Along with a visitor center and the reconstructed fort, there is also a picnic area, fishing pier, hiking trails and boat dock. When doing research on the fort I discovered that there were actually three colonial forts built by the British in what is now the US that share the same name: the TN Fort Loudoun, and two others in Virginia and Pennsylvania... Seems like a recipe for confusion for British logistics!


To round out your visit to the fort, head across the road to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, a tribally operated museum dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of the history of the Cherokee people. The Museum is also a location on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The ruins visible on the opposite shore of the Little Tennessee from Fort Loudoun are that of the Tellico Blockhouse, the US army fort built in 1794 with a similar purpose to Fort Loudoun's. The significance of the area to the Cherokee is further emphasized by the proximity to Icehouse Bottom, a prehistoric Native American site that is one of the oldest-known habitation areas in Tennessee. Icehouse Bottom was submerged with the creation of the Tellico Reservoir, the shoreline immediately above the site now part of the McGhee-Carson Unit of the Tellico Lake WMA, just one peninsula east of Fort Loudoun State Park.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Great Dismal Swamp

The name alone stimulates the imagination – Great Dismal Swamp. What turned out to be the last stop in our coastal Virginia exploration, the National Wildlife Refuge attracted my attention due to the proximity to Norfolk as well as the reputed abundance of wildlife within its confines.


Straddling the border between North Carolina and Virginia, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge contains over 112,000 acres of forested wetlands and the 31,000 acre Lake Drummond at its center. It is the largest intact remnant of the habitat that once covered more than a million acres in this region, and with 200 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies and one of the largest black bear populations on the east coast, the area has significant ecological importance.


Evidence of human presence in the Dismal Swamp dates to some 13,000 years ago. The name Great Dismal is thought to come from Colonel William Byrd II’s expeditions into the swamp in the early 1700s to draw the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. George Washington visited the swamp in 1763, and having organized the Dismal Swamp Company, he proceeded to drain, farm, and log large portions of the swamp. Then with the approach of the Civil War the swamp gained a new significance: as a stop on the Underground Railroad on the way to the port of Norfolk, and of home to ‘the maroons,’ those choosing to remain in the relative safety of the swamp. The Union Camp Corporation donated 49,100 acres of the swamp to The Nature Conservancy in 1973 (who passed it on to the Department of the Interior), and the following year the refuge was established and the site officially designated as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.


It would be hard to cover more than a portion of this immense area in a day (especially without a boat!), and with this knowledge in the forefront of our minds we chose to concentrate on the area around the Refuge Office. The office itself was closed on what was a federal holiday, but nearby are a few hiking trails and the only road leading to Lake Drummond that allows vehicle traffic. We started at the Washington Ditch parking area and set off on the ¾ mile boardwalk trail to get a feel for the swamp. The elevated wooden Dismal Town Boardwalk Trail meanders through a representative portion of swamp habitats before emerging out on the Washington Ditch to return to the parking area. This was the spot used by Washington and company as their Dismal Swamp headquarters.

setting off on the Dismal Town Boardwalk trail

The five-mile Washington Ditch leads from the western boundary of the refuge to the north end of Lake Drummond, and was dug by hand by slaves for the purpose of transportation. The hike from the parking area to the lake is 4.5 miles, the main reason why we elected to skip it in favor of the auto tour route a little further south; we wanted to see the lake, but with cloudy skies and tired boys a 9-mile hike wasn’t an option.

Washington Ditch

The auto tour route begins just south of the Refuge Office. For rules and regulations (as well as to print out a permit) please visit the FWS website, although that information is also available on site. The road heads east along Railroad Ditch, then south along the West Ditch and finally west along Interior Ditch until it reaches the southwest shore of Lake Drummond. Along the six mile route there are several trails that take visitors out into the marsh and to several other interesting points, including a bald cypress that may be up to 800 years old.


The enormous lake in the center of the swamp was only ‘discovered’ in 1665 by colonial NC governor William Drummond. The largest natural lake in Virginia was formed about 4,000 years ago after a wildfire burned away several feet of peat soil. The peat is also the reason behind the lake’s dark brown color; it is stained dark as tea as it seeps through the peat, and this extended filtering also renders it incredibly pure.

foam stained brown

Although there are no alligators in the lake, it is home to many species of fish. In the winter the lake provides a resting area for thousands of migratory birds including Tundra Swans and Snow Geese, and during the summer visitors will see Great Blue Herons and egrets. On our January visit we spotted at least one Bald Eagle soaring overhead.

Tundra swans?


I had certainly expected a damp, ‘dismal’ visit on this rainy winter day, however our tour was anything but… On a hot, muggy summer’s day the swamp will provide a completely different experience (bug spray!), but this winter morning was a perfect time to explore a small portion of this amazing ecosystem, even with a slight drizzle. As we navigated the ditch roads back to civilization at least one boy drifted off to sleep before we even hit the pavement; I imagine his dreams to have been about the bears and eagles getting back to the business of the swamp upon our departure…

Friday, February 17, 2017

Where Neptune greets the sea

It’s the most populous city in the state, but covering a total of almost 500 square miles Virginia Beach feels like more of a suburb than a city. Together with the nearby towns of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News (where we visited the Mariners’ Museum), Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk, the area is known as "America's First Region.”


Within Virginia Beach boundaries are First Landing State Park, Fort Story and the Cape Henry Lighthouse, and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. However, the city may be most famous for its 3-mile boardwalk that stretches along the oceanfront and is lined with hotels, condos and boutiques. There are separate paths for inline skating and biking along the ocean, and the wide beach offers plenty of space for sunbathing and barefoot walks in the surf.



Here, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic, it is only appropriate to find a statue of Neptune. A counterpart to the Greek god Poseidon, Neptune is the Roman god of the sea and freshwater.  The bronze Neptune of Virginia Beach stands 34 feet tall at the entrance of Neptune Park on 31st Street.


please caption this photo

The 12-ton statue has a 12-foot tall rock base which is surrounded by octopus, fish, dolphins, lobsters, and other sea creatures. Neptune rises over visitors, a trident in one hand and a loggerhead turtle in the other. The mighty god was attracting a fair share of curious visitors, even on a windy, overcast January afternoon – I can only imagine the crowds on a sunny summer day.


The Virginia Beach boardwalk was not a planned stop on our itinerary, and so it was a short stop – only long enough to admire the god of the sea and enjoy an ocean-side walk before warming up with some hot chocolate and coffee. A real exploration will have to wait for another time, possibly during a warmer season… Any suggestions on places we ought to see?



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

First Landing State Park

(Continued from this post on the Site of the first landing and Cape Henry Lighthouse...)

West of the Little Creek/Fort Story base is First Landing State Park, the name a little misleading as the actual site of the ‘first landing’ was within boundaries of the military base. The 2,888 acre park was originally called Seashore State Park, but later was renamed to reflect the historical significance of Cape Henry. In 1607 the Virginia Company made landfall on the Cape, the group of settlers eventually moving west to form Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in North America. It is possible to visit the actual ‘first landing’ site within Fort Story (see my post on our visit) as well as to climb the historic Cape Henry lighthouse, but the boys wanted to explore, something that is strongly discouraged within military base boundaries. We drove the short distance back to the State Park, paid a small fee to enter, and followed signs to the Visitor Center.


The story of the ‘first landing’ is covered in a series of exhibits that also includes the Powhatans, the actual ‘first’ settlers of the region. This wasn’t the natives’ first contact with Europeans; around 1570 Spain had tried to establish a colony there and had sent missionaries to convert the natives to Christianity. However, it was the arrival of the English colonists in April 1607 that the name of the park refers to. Something to think about in relation to our American history... It was a dozen years later when the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but it is that ‘second landing’ that is associated with the holiday (Thanksgiving) and receives far more coverage in the history books. It has been implied that after the Civil War the northern ‘story’ replaced the southern ‘story'; could this explain the extra importance accorded the 'second landing'? These questions were not to be resolved on our visit, however the exhibits offer an in-depth look at the lives of the settlers and natives through more recent times.


The Visitor Center is on the ocean-side of the highway along with the campgrounds and boardwalks for beach access. After our stop to view the exhibits we headed out to the beach, slightly discouraged by strong winds as we crossed the dunes. However, our perseverance was rewarded with having the 1.5 mile beach almost entirely to ourselves, and as we walked up and down the shore and searched for treasure from the ocean, my initial misgivings about spending time on the water in January slightly faded. Today the dunes are much smaller than they would have been when the settlers walked these parts, as are the forests and marshes; still, the imagination runs wild with what it must have been like to first step foot on these shores 400 years ago.


In the early 1600s Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay seeking precious metals and passage to Asia. He traveled the James, Chickahominy and York rivers, and led two major expeditions from Jamestown in 1608. Today his travels are honored with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a portion of which passes right along Cape Henry. As we searched for shells and interesting rocks the wind continued its relentless push; I found it hard to imagine Smith’s crew sailing/rowing almost 3,000 miles in such conditions.

sanderlings looking for a meal in the surf

Finally we left the beach to the mercy of the wind, and headed back to the car. Across highway 60 is the second portion of the park that includes the State Park cabins/lodges, but also the Trail Center and 20 miles of trail. This was our next stop, as in addition to the historical significance of the park, First Landing also has the distinction of being the northernmost east coast location where subtropical and temperate plants can be found growing together. We wanted to take a short hike to experience the botanical aspect of the area, and after a consult with the ranger at the Trail Center we set off on the Bald Cypress Nature Trail.


The 1.8 mile trail travels over bald cypress swamps on boardwalks, across dunes and swales, and through the dune forest. For 50 cents visitors can buy a self-guided tour booklet at the Trail Center, its numbered stops corresponding to trail markers along the way. We made a game out of finding the markers and in the process learned fascinating things about the history of the region, the cycles and changes of the natural area, and the animals and plants that call the park their home.



We emerged from the forest just as daylight began to fade. Although we were only a short distance from Virginia Beach, we found a restaurant in the other direction on the way back to Norfolk, to fuel up after a long day outside. The highlight of the day happened that evening when Lauris lost his first tooth; even though we never recovered it, the Tooth Fairy still found Lauris to leave him a little something! An eventful trip, and only one day left in coastal Virginia... On our last day we were planning to visit the enormous wetlands area that straddles the North Carolina/Virginia border. Stay tuned for a tour of Dismal Swamp...

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