Jan/Feb 2012First Light Upstate: Land of Mountains and Waterby Tom Poland

Early daylight is our god.

We are disciples all. We go where the light leads us, and it leads to a crumpled, carved land where the earth flexes rock-hard muscles. Here, in this uplifted land of tangled greenery, early light uplifts the spirit. No place slakes a thirst for wanderlust like these conflicted highlands and their crusade eternal - water versus rock.

Witness the magnificent clash.

In the northwest corner, pilgrims heed the call of early light. Twisting footpaths end at pebble-strewn trout streams. Steep paths lead to vantage points where the earth drops away. Rutted paths climb marooned mountains. Boot marks ply cracked-rock trails. Worn footpaths lead to waterfalls.

Gated passages lead to apple lands. Footpaths cut through forested campuses. Boy Scouts greet dawn in meadows along the Palmetto Trail. Mountain bikers grind up Paris Mountain. Nature lovers pay homage to rocky shoals spider lilies along the Catawba. The Oconee bell delights disciples who pilgrimage to see this rare wildflower. Throughout the Upstate, paths lace together a pretty land of plenty and something called splendid discovery.

O say what you can see by dawn's early light.

On the Chattooga

In early morning on this wild river that runs northeast to southwest and cuts deep beneath early daylight, hurtling downriver between canyon walls, I glide, pitch, jostle and buck as, high above, light ricochets and flares off granite and gneiss. Sunlit mica fires up and the walls shake with glitter. Asphalt-gray boulders streaked with white lean over the river. It's as if an earthquake thrust broken highways into airy, obtuse angles to remind you of something simple: civilization doesn't exist here.

Upstream, above the S.C. Highway 28 Bridge, it's much more peaceful. A thick canopy cools the water. Cascades enrich oxygen levels. The romantic fly fisherman at dawn lives here. Standing in riffles arcing casts against a green mountain laurel backdrop, he floats his hand-tied fly upon cool water.

The Cherokee fished this river. You can still see their weir in Section IV - structured piles of rocks glistening with a purpose long unfulfilled. Sliding sideways upon the current, avoiding boulders, syllable by syllable, I say "Nan-ta-ha-la." This Cherokee word resounds off unforgiving walls. Though I am not on the Nantahala, I'm nonetheless in the "Land of the Noonday Sun."

To run the Chattooga in early light is to navigate the edge of night. Rocky cliffs to the west reflect day's first light. All this glancing, dancing light airbrushes the river, giving it an airy, treacherous essence. Geological processes 250 million years old have perfected traps that devour unwary kayakers like M&Ms. An ill-fated deer last summer ended up in a keeper hydraulic where it tumbled for a week before the river spat it out, piece by piece. Light is a tricky thing on a white-water river. If you run the Chattooga, you had better be an unerring judge of depths, colors and shadows.

Here in fabled Section IV, the Chattooga saves its strongest, rock-hard muscle for its last seven miles, where boulders and ledges beget rapids, sieves and hydraulics. Entering Seven Foot Falls, I'm thrown out as fast as a pencil point breaks mid-sentence. I toss, tumble, spin and beat against rocks. I rise against the raft bottom. Once, twice, thrice; inflated air - just what I need! - holds me underwater. Trapped! On my fourth try, I surface, strangling and throwing up the Chattooga.

River guide John Michael Wallace, with his long brown mane and Nazarene beard, might look like Jesus, but even he can't walk on water. He too goes under at Seven Foot Falls. Wallace likes to run the river in his one-man, inflatable kayak. He's seen the river in all her moods. Seen her quirks, too. He points to shaky spindles of rocks piled atop one another.

"Hippies think those will bring them good luck," he says dryly.

Early light, Wallace tells me, provides a spectacle on this vestige of wild America. "Oh man, it's amazing. At daybreak, beams shoot above narrow areas, shining onto Georgia trees. When the light strikes the water in wider, open areas, flakes of mica light up."

"In the shallows, Wallace adds as he pushes off a rock, "long flowing trails of algae turn neon green when the light strikes them."

I had seen the trails of fluorescent green pointing downstream, but wasn't sure what they were. Light up here is a jester. Hard to believe algae clings to granite so tightly in this brilliant white water, but cling it does. Such tenacity holds a lesson for man, the minor actor in Chattooga dramas. As we shoot between brown rocks, I glimpse the imprint of a fossil in a boulder, a small fish, perhaps, or was it an ancient leaf? Whatever it was has been there forever. Me? My name is Sojourner. I am only passing through these canyon walls.

Upcountry the Beautiful

From a cattle farm's grasslands in a dale beneath the Blue Ridge Escarpment, I watch sunrise slide down the distant rock face. Me? I'm in lingering night shadows watching that curtain of light set the day to stirring for man and beast alike.

Want to savor the sweet, popping burst of a crisp mountain apple? Want to take in spacious skies and purple mountain majesties above a fruited plain and perchance see a black bear stand to better see you? How about an open jar of honey shot through by golden sunlight, or the dewy sweetness inside an Elberta peach's velvety patina of sunrise colors? See Perdue's Mountain Fruit Farm in northern Greenville County.

Dick Perdue chose the location for his orchards along the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway because of its promising blend of climate and geography. A bonus came as well: early morning splendor.

"I get up at five-thirty," says Perdue. "In early morning light, the mountains are blue and covered in white haze. When it rains, fog banks form."

Another bonus is hard to beat. Solitude. "When I am up on my farm's ridges, I see no signs of man, none whatsoever."

Perdue drives up scenic S.C. Highway 253 every day. As it gains in altitude, the land goes from mainly pine trees to hardwoods. "After you cross Highway 11, oaks, tulip poplars, sourwood, red maples, cherry, sweet gum and hickory take over," he says. "With these hardwoods, along with lots of dogwoods, we usually get a beautiful leaf color display each fall."

When Perdue gets to his farm he often drives through it. Turkey buzzards and red-tailed hawks soar above as bird music fills the air. "I often hear an owl hooting in the nearby woods or a woodpecker rattling a dead tree. The biggest excitement we have with wildlife is black bears. They are very selective in the fruit they eat," said Perdue. "They only eat the sweetest apples. They don't like Granny Smiths!"

How can a bear resist the scent of fresh fruit?

Miles and Miles and Miles

A man can see a little over three miles to the apparent horizon, but in the hills a man can see for miles and miles and miles and miles, as Mr. Townsend famously wrote. Standing on Sassafras Mountain, I look over a rippling green land. Were I in a Deltaplane harness, I could launch out and float over all that hazy blue greenness. South Carolina's rooftop attracts highpointers, though none are here this breezy but hot, humid morning.

Sunlight glints off three lakes, which look like shiny dimes from 3,553 feet - Jocassee, Keowee and Hartwell in pale silver.

The rooftop grows hotter. I feel a bit like Icarus, and dreams of hangliding evaporate. Haze chokes the sky, and the distant lakes appear ill defined. Lines of blue, gray and white air stack along the horizon like lake sediment.

A freighter appears to steam across Lake Keowee toward Jocassee. Vortex Diamondback 8 by 42 field glasses verify things. The freighter is there all right, headed for mountain swells. It steams, literally, but gets nowhere, this shimmering ship from the sea that cannot be.

In a blink it disappears. Gone. I look through the glasses again and see instead a small watercraft plying the lake's veneer, a feathery wake trailing it - a mirage, a Fata Morgana, it calls to mind True At First Light, Hemingway's mirage extraordinaire.

"In Africa, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable."

A landlocked freighter in the Carolina hills that's absolutely true and believable? Light is indeed, a tricky thing . . . here in the hills.

The Irresistible Force

Is there anything lovelier than a silver waterfall splashing over brown rocks covered in greenery? For photographer Robert Clark, two kinds of waterfalls exist. Those struck by early light and those tucked in shadows. Those open to the early sun, he says, turn golden when light hits them.

"Often cove falls look super blue from soaking up the sky's blueness," says Clark. "Moisture gives the air a new dimension and all that humidity lets you smell the earth. In fall, the moisture pulls out a sweet, heavy scent from falling leaves."

He's right. All that thundering water saturates the air. Dampened undersides of ferns smell like black pepper, and decaying wood yields an earthy, uplifting fragrance, the scent of life rising from death. But you needn't be a photographer to appreciate waterfalls in "The Great Blue Hills of God" as the Cherokee knew them. Just go. Get up there. The hills will reward you with beauty and geological delights.

Consider that imaginary line deciding whether water flows to the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. The Eastern Continental Divide runs in a general southwest to northeast direction. On the divide's north and west sides, water flows to the Gulf. To its east and south, water heads for the Atlantic. Stand beneath the Jones Gap waterfall and waters course over you to two oceans.

Or ease up S.C. Highway 130 to see Whitewater Falls' twin cataracts plunge more than four hundred feet at the South Carolina-North Carolina boundary. Go early and watch first light illuminate all that water falling from one state to another.

I visited Issaqueena Falls and its three stair-stepping cascades early one morning. Approaching it, I saw water simply flowing over a ledge - no big deal - but then I walked down the trail to its right and watched dramatic, early light glittering on this aquamarine filigree. Uphill from Issaqueena, at Stumphouse Tunnel, I found the Upcountry's black hole. Inside its hand-chipped shaft, 1,617 feet long, water constantly dripped on me. Enter if you dare. Up here the choices are yours.

Pick out a spot and go for a dawn hike. You'll feel more alive than ever. Breathe deep. Let hemlock and spruce pine fill your lungs as birds flit through boughs like sprites. As you close in, an understated-but-growing presence invades your soul. A few more turns and the air thunders and shakes and mists chill the air swirling about you. Then you see it: a majestic drapery of water pounding a bed of granite. The immovable object and the irresistible force.

The Freshwater Coast

The Upcountry forms half of South Carolina's watery 254-mile boundary with Georgia. The Chattooga and Tugaloo rivers, along with lakes Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond, create an unbroken water wonderland from Modoc to Mountain Rest. Fishermen and guides head out early, gliding across glassy surfaces.

Over in McCormick County, Kirk Smith of Outdoor Initiative, Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes outdoor recreation in the area around Thurmond Lake and the adjoining Sumter National Forest, knows people like the lake for reasons not always obvious. Take mountain biking. The Wall Street Journal highlighted the Little River Blueway Adventure Area's Forks Area Trail System (www.littleriverblueway.org) as the Southeast's only "flow trail," a single-track path purpose-built for mountain biking. The Blueway offers bikers 156 miles of single track. Or, if the car is more your speed, you can explore the countryside and watch for wildlife on the Blueway's fifty-mile scenic drive over backroads and scenic two-lane highways at daybreak. (Be alert to deer.)

The Little River Blueway Adventure Area and the surrounding protected lands in McCormick County are known for spectacular sunrises. When dawn breaks along the lake, the light hitting the western shores forms amber edges against blue waters and green forests.

"My favorite time of year to be on the Blueway is in early fall when the crisp, cool morning air collides with water still warm from the summer," says Smith. "The thin layer of fog that dances along the water as first light breaks through the canopy provides a mystical, awe-inspiring experience."

Close by in the Long Cane District of the Sumter National Forest, Abbeville County's Parson's Mountain sits alone. This lonely aberration stands 832 feet over the Forest. It's a tough, winding climb to the top past old mines where El Dorado dreams died. Up top stands a fire tower and a mystical arrangement of stones that appear to be a compass. Stones spell out "N." As dawn approaches, the night creams up, heralding another day's debut. Strengthening light offers glimpses through the green, broad-leaved canopy, as earth and forest fade into blue haze. Soon, revving engines float up . . . more than twelve miles of off-road trails crisscross the mountain's flanks. Come fall, fluorescent orange dots the greenery far below along the Morrow Bridge and Midway seasonal hunting camps.

It's lonely and quiet atop Parson's Mountain. As I head down, a canebrake rattler slips through grasses right by the trail. My walk down goes much faster.

Ruins, Remnants and Regeneration

Up in Spartanburg County stand the Glendale Ruins. Ruins speak to us from the past. "Take heed. Here is where grand ideas and mighty events came to pass, but not so mighty as to prevent our destruction."

Remnants and ruins evoke emotions. In one fell swoop you see that, yes, someone had a dream and the dream was realized, but its fate was to end in the heartbreak of destruction. Such was the case with Glendale Mill. It burned. Ashes to ashes.

Shells of the mill remain, often described as Gothic. The old ruins loom hauntingly over people who come to the Lawson's Fork Creek to relax and fish. Occasionally, a kayaker comes through. One can make it to the Atlantic from here. John Lane did.

Lane, a Wofford associate professor of English and Environmental Studies, directs the Glendale Shoals Environmental Studies Center. He wrote with reverence of the old mill after it burned: "Now it's gone. What was probably the best, most scenic example of an intact mill village in our area has now lost its centerpiece, its heart."

I walked the Glendale ruins early one morning. Across the rapids, a woman fished. As I photographed the old iron bridge over the creek, she pulled up a shiny string of bream for me to see.

Something tugged at me as I walked the grounds, the idea that people love ruins because they're beautiful reminders of how nature reclaims and regenerates her own. I found charred remnants of the old mill everywhere I looked, and I found new growth everywhere too.

An old shortleaf pine had recently succumbed to a thunderstorm's microburst. I counted the dense rings and figured the tree was at least 150 years old. It had been a seedling when the War Between the States commenced. Now it is no more. Nor is the old mill, but the people still come to be outdoors here. It's a special place. The ruins and blocks of stone serve as monuments, as reminders. Sure as the sun rises, old stones shaped to man's ways will return to nature.

In Chester County, the locks at the south end of Landsford Canal remind us that man's need for rocks dies in time. Irish masons crafted the canal's guardlock, a structure that safely lowered boats into the canal during floods. The finely cut granite stones still stand, only now vigorous greenery grows between them where water once stood. In the river, an old rock wall continues its prolonged tumble. Men built this diversion dam to keep water flowing into the canal and offer riverboat pilots a haven during floods. People come to the canal early in the morning, especially in May and June when the rocky shoals spider lilies burst into large white blooms. Anchored against rocks, the flowers festoon the river and its load of jammed logs with bursts of white and green at sunup; one of the world's largest stands of these exquisite flowers. Their needs are simple: swift, shallow water and sunlight. Therein lies the rub. Their habitat has been severely reduced by man's penchant for damming rivers.

Riverboat pilots no longer ply the Catawba's waters, but kayakers do. The morning I was there, I talked to a retired sheet metal worker on the riverbank as two men kayaked the river. "I come here all the time just to get away," he told me.

One if by land, two if by sea. On water and on land, people come to see river ruins and "get away." Man, the sojourner, passes through.

Four days after I shot the Chattooga rapids, I got up early on a Tuesday morning to run at daybreak in Harbison State Forest. At 6:41 a.m., the sun popped over the horizon. Yellow light sifted through green pine tops angling across my front steps.

Early light had one more trick to play. Putting on my shoes, the ones I rafted the Chattooga with, they felt tight, too tight. Talcum-fine river powder had collected in the toe box. I knocked them together and shook 'em good. As I emptied the shoes, shiny mica filled the air with the sparkling light of a Chattooga sunrise. It hung in still air shimmering, a celebration paying gravity no mind.

Suddenly I was back in those splendid hills, the roar of white water in my ears, rocks flashing before my eyes. I remembered Seven Foot Falls and a shiver shot down my spine. It pleased me in some curious way that the river was now on my doorstep and I had seen it one more time thanks to the god, Early Light.


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