On Saturday, August 15th Blue Ridge Discovery Center got together for a day of exploration capped off by a potluck party! We started the day early in Grayson Highlands State Park, hiking over Wilburn Ridge and crossing into Sullivan Swamp. Eight sturdy hikers and guide Devin Floyd made their way through the thickets looking at the plants, butterflies and birds of one of the rarest habitats in the region: a Southern Appalachian Shrub Bog.
Later in the afternoon we kicked off the festivities on site with a butterfly walk along an ironweed and goldenrod meadow seeing common buckeyes, eastern-tiger swallowtails, monarchs, meadow fritillaries, great-spangled fritillaries and sulphurs. Thunderclouds appeared rapidly overhead and we moved back into the picking pavilion as the rain began to fall. Jane Floyd took the kids (and a few adults) under her wing and taught them how to make pressed plant and rice paper bookmarks. The rain continued to fall and one could clearly see the line in the clouds stretching across the property: dry(ish) on one side, wet on the other. Weighing our options, we choose the wet side and headed towards the property's two gorgeous cascading waterfalls.
An upbeat crew, led by the property plant specialist Bill Link, meandered their way into the creek valley donning rain jackets and umbrellas. We stopped for the passing toad, a mushroom, a short plant investigation in the bog and to pull out the pocket knives to discover a preserved chestnut log leaning against another tree. Eventually we made it to the first waterfall where we reveled in the rain forest like moisture that filled the air. At the brief stop a flash of a large bird caught the eyes of the hikers and group speculation concluded it was a barred owl that would be calling the dense northern cove forest home. Heading up the slippery slope we made our way to the second set of cascading waterfalls where we looked on in awe at the water carving through the bedrock of gneiss. Reversing course, we managed to make our way back, shirts and hair soaking wet but avoiding any muddy falls!
Upon return the clouds had broken and out came the fly rods for a lesson on the bass pond. Fly fishing enthusiast Lisa Benish rigged up the gear and demonstrated the technique. After many many attempts a smallmouth bass was finally landed, but the highlight was clearly multiple first time fishers taking a stab at a potential life long enriching activity.
Volunteers Jane Floyd and Deborah Shell gathered the kids together for a treasure hunt that crossed over the property and into the woods. They followed clues from one feature in the landscape to another. The very first clue hung from a milkweed plant and right on cue appeared a massive monarch caterpillar for the kids to marvel at. On they went, racing across the fields, rocks and forest until they discovered a treasure chest filled with Quartz Crystals and Mica!
With the crowd and buffet filling in nicely we all opted for sustenance and lined up for one of the best potluck dinners ever served. An array of fruit, vegetables rice, pasta, pork, chicken, and pies! Highlighting the meal were the boston butts provided by Brenda Bonk and Lisa Benish! After the bellies were full, BRDC President Brenda Bonk and Executive Director Aaron Floyd spoke to the crowd about the organization and the vision for the future.
The group continued to socialize until night fell and the mysterious creatures began to rise. While the Astronomer Evan Worrell set up the telescopes, a wide-eyed group headed towards the forest's edge to attempt calling in an owl. Rumor had it that a screech owl was near by and as we volleyed the call out into the night, the faint call of barred owl rose in the neighboring valley. We switched calls in hopes of luring him close by. As we were about to move on, the barred owl let us know that he was within a stone's throw with a loud "Who cooks for you?". As we went back and forth with the barred owl, another picked up off in the distance, then an eastern screech owl started calling, then another and another. We counted five owls calling along the edge. But that wasn't all, upon return to the pavilion two other adventurers reported screech owl calls in entirely different directions!
The night grew darker and the group gathered around the telescope. The clouds finally cooperated and scattered for good. Evan Worrell guided the watchers through the constellations and fixated in on Saturn's faint rings. No shooting stars fell across the night sky, but our dreams of a fantastic day had come true and we closed up shop to head off for rest. Thank you to all that attended and to all of our dedicated volunteers and staff for pulling off such a wonderful event. A big thanks to host Joe Vogel and his family for providing such fantastic facilities and grounds for the event.