Even before our claim to fame as the film location for the blockbuster hits “Dirty Dancing” and “Last of the Mohicans,” Lake Lure and the Blue Ridge Foothills of Western North Carolina was firmly established as a longtime visitor hotspot.
Of even loftier distinction has always been our picture perfect scenery of an alluring lake skirted by sweeping mountain ranges and thousands of acres of undisturbed forestland. From lake to land, and all points in between, we are quite simply known by thousands as a bounty of beauty for outdoor recreation and serene relaxation.
INTERRUPTED BY FIRE:
But in November 2016 the same scenery that has drawn visitors to our community for nearly 100 years was momentarily threatened as we became known for a hotspot of a different kind.
The eyes of a nation, many of whom carry a special connection to Lake Lure, watched as a 7,000 acre wildfire scorched the underbrush of our beautiful forests and burned sporadic sections of the iconic Rumbling Bald mountain ridge.
It came to be known as the Party Rock Fire because it originated in a remote area of the mountain, known to avid backcountry hikers as, “Party Rock.”
For nearly four weeks, a daily barrage of television and Internet images spread as fast as the wildfire itself, delivering a convincing visual message of mass devastation upon our beloved visitor destination. But the images, while reflecting the serious threat that existed, didn’t tell the whole story.
With the grandeur of spring at our doorstep, and in anticipation of once again welcoming our visitors, attention has since shifted to the positive impact the fire had and will continue to have on the natural beauty that is as renowned as our movies.
Being that much of our popularity centers around enjoying our natural beauty in various recreational pursuits, visitors want to know: “What does it look like now and will we still be able to enjoy the parks and the mountains as we did before? And is the lake okay?”
The unequivocal answer as concluded by area ecology, land management, and forestland experts is a resounding YES! Everything is okay, and in most cases it’s going to be more than okay as the years unfold. We are already witnessing the enormous power of nature to thrive after a disaster.
What all of this means for our outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, hikers, mountain bikers and bird watchers, is that there has never been a better time to experience the natural surroundings that make up Lake Lure and the Blue Ridge Foothills.
“In most places you hike, take a drive or ride a bike, you have to look hard to find any evidence that there was a fire at all”, local biologist Clint Calhoun said of the land impacted by the Party Rock Fire. “What we do see are signs of rebirth and that is very encouraging.”
What’s more, the historic centerpiece of Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park was not damaged at all, and our cherished lake is intact and ready for action.
The rock climbing and bouldering area of Chimney Rock State Park off Boys Camp Road sustained fire damage in places. However, the park reopened in January, thanks to the work of more than 70 volunteers from the climbing community who removed trees downed in the fire, built a new rock staircase, installed railings at switchbacks, and spread fresh gravel near the trailhead.
Buffalo Creek Park, Western North Carolina’s newest mountain biking park and backcountry hiking experience, was also closed briefly because of the fire. Sections of the main bike trail were damaged by dozer lines built to keep the fire from spreading. It re-opened in early February, fully restored to her original ‘thrill ride’ condition.
THE BIG PICTURE:
Ecologically speaking, the experts tell us that the Party Rock Fire of 2016 will likely go down in history as the best thing that could have happened to our forests in a long time.
While there is some concern for the threat of invasive plant species to creep in, some of those experts like Peter Barr, trails and recreational lands coordinator for Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, are optimistic about what the fire means for the future of our affected forest. By the time folks hit the trails this spring and summer, the forest should be bursting with new greenery.
Barr and others are who intimately aware of this area’s forest ecology should know. Days after the fire was announced fully contained, they ventured out and inspected the damage up close.
Comparing the immediate aftermath of the fire to that of a storm in some places, they saw burned limbs and sticks strewn across the woodland floor and hollow trees burned from the inside toppled across trails. But these places were in remote areas or in expanses of public land not yet fully developed or simply not widely traveled by most visitors.
What our visitors do expect to see - lush canopies of trees, long range mountain vistas and the all-consuming feel of nature inside our town and state parks – these are as they always were. They are already beginning to ‘green up’ just as they do every year.
By late February and early March positive signs of regeneration were easy to spot. Many south-facing slopes are showing evidence of life as the seeds of new growth begin to germinate. Areas of forest or ridges that were damaged are now more opened to vital sunlight than they have been in years.
“Often, floods and fires serve as nature’s giant reset button because they tend to re-balance things,” Calhoun said. For example, some of the trees that burned, such as some of the Virginia Pines, were blocking the growth of other species. Now that more sunlight can reach in to the ground floor, it creates ideal opportunities for increased diversity and new growth.
Within weeks of the fire’s containment, evidence of deer and bear tracks were seen on the ground, revealing that almost immediately wildlife returned to eat acorns that had been buried under the leaves, and that were now exposed, observed Marshall Ellis, Mountains District Biologist for N.C. State Parks and an expert on fire ecology.
Asked about his advice to visitors, he said, “As a fire ecologist, I haven’t seen anything on this landscape that causes me to freak out about its future in the aftermath of this fire.”
That’s very good news for longtime visitors like Chris Braund of Charlotte, N.C, who is also a former Lake Lure resident. When asked about his favorite park to visit, he said, “Buffalo Creek Park is actually one of my personal favorites because it offers an easily-accessible, pet-friendly outdoor experience for everyone: (hikers, stream explorers, picnickers, mountain bikers), but it also serves as a trailhead for longer, more challenging adventures in the high backcountry.”
While Buffalo Creek Park is close to the activities of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Village, the experience is one of true backcountry hiking and mountain biking. Explore pristine mountain streams, see forest ecology and exposed geology. Look carefully to spot echoes of the area’s logging history and see the rich variety of plant and animal species that inhabit this entire area.
Lake Lure resident Larry Czajkoski agreed. “Having the ability to be part of nature and have a healthy outlet for body and mind enrichment in so many places right here in our backyard, is fantastic.”
Like the vast majority of the community’s parks and forests, that rich variety of plant and animal species is thankfully intact and awaiting our visitors this spring and summer.