Fire on the Mountain

As I left the SC Forestry Commission briefing where the decision had been made that a back burn would be necessary to control the fire, I thought of what was in store for the mountain that has always been a part of my life. The back burn would engulf the mountain with fire, a fire necessary to slow the progress and control the Pinnacle Mountain fire. I thought about it on my way home: the consequences, the risks and the benefits. The plan and the execution were flawless, the Forestry Commission did a great job. While the mountain burned, the progress of the fire slowed enough for firefighters to manage while waiting for the much needed rain to finally extinguish the flames that had caused so much anxiety and concern.  It had been a long couple of weeks, but the fire was out and it was time to see how our mountain fared. I had seen the night photography with the mountain ablaze, and witnessed first-hand the pillars of smoke coming from parts of the mountain as if it were a factory from the 19th century. Finally, it was time to take one of my favorite hikes… a trip to the top of our mountain. This trip up the mountain would be different. I had already seen the some of the damage to the trail so I prepared for a different kind of hike. The scars from bulldozers and equipment that built firebreaks were still fresh. The breaks may be unsightly at first but there is beauty in the disturbed landscape and in the “footprints” of bulldozers. These firebreaks were beautifully done and their lines held and saved historic structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The more I saw the “footprints” of the big yellow dozers, the more beautiful they became.  

I was anxious to see the halfway shelter, as it has been reported it did not survive the fire. Built by the CCC 80 years ago, the shelter had provided a place of rest, reflection and inspiration for decades. I was anxious to see this iconic structure and evaluate the condition of the trail that leads to the top of South Carolina’s iconic mountain. As I passed the firebreak, I was reminded just how fortunate we had been and how effective the breaks had been in stopping the fire from unthinkable damage. The trail was in remarkable condition, thanks much to clean up crews who had already cleared some of the downed trees. The forest was recovering from the fire, and a new coat of fallen leaves began to hide the charred forest floor. The trail was as challenging as always, but the beauty was even more profound with the knowledge of what the mountain had been through. Passing the first set of large granite outcrops just below the one-mile mark, I saw the first evidence of a very hot fire, while the trail was still in remarkable condition. As my mind was busy taking in the new look of a charred forest, I refocused on my hike and looked forward to see an amazing site- the halfway shelter, unmarked and seemingly awaiting my arrival.  Amazed, I walked all around the shelter and saw charred ground, burned trees surrounding the amazing craftsmanship of the CCC. If it wasn’t already, the building seemed to have reached legendary status since my last trip up.

I have no idea how the building survived, but it did. A trip halfway up the mountain just to see it is worth the hike. The second half of the trail didn’t disappoint. The trail serves as a guide through the forest that just survived a historic fire.  Yes, there is some damage. Mountain laurel that outline the granite rocks that provide the framework for the trail got extremely hot and sustained damage. The carsonite sign at the three-mile mark is a reminder of just how hot the fire got.  The top of the mountain is charred but still magical. As I made my way to the overlook, I was not disappointed. The view is still breathtaking, and for me always a spiritual experience. There is something about this mountain.

On the way down, my attention turned to the opportunities ahead for Table Rock Mountain. The mountain will recover and this spring will bring new growth, amazing spring wildflowers and countless opportunities for park rangers to interpret fire- the dangers of it, the responsibility we have when we use it and the benefits that fire has when used correctly as a tool in resource management. Arriving back at the Carrick Creek Falls overlook, I must admit I was anxious to get the trail back open so you could experience Table Rock Mountain, see the legendary halfway shelter and be as amazed as I was that it’s still standing. With lots of help the trail is back open, just in time for First Day Hikes. Come out and enjoy. Walk the trail. Even if you don’t make it to the top, you won’t be disappointed.  There is nothing like a walk in the woods to clear you mind, recharge your batteries and reconnect with nature.  Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season!

 

See you in the parks and on a First Day Hike!

Phil