Kayaking on Lake Burton

My wife and I took our Hobie kayaks out on Lake Burton recently, putting in at a shady little cove at Moccasin Creek State Park near Clarkesville, Georgia.  Lake Burton is considered one of the highest demand lakes in the country for real estate, and on its shores are fabulous homes owned by celebrities, athletes, and wealthy entrepreneurs.  Some of the two-storey boat houses are grander than most middle class homes in America.  The 2800-acre lake is nestled in the mountains of northeast Georgia, about 100 miles northeast of Atlanta.  It is one of several Georgia Power Company lakes created by a series of dams on the Tallulah River.

Kayaking on Lake Burton
Kayaking on Lake Burton

I have bragged on Georgia’s state park system several times, and Moccasin Creek is one of the reasons.  In addition to providing access to a beautiful mountain lake, the park is a perfect setting for camping, and the campground is one of the best I’ve seen in the state. It has a large pavilion, a big playground, a general store, a fishing dock, a boat ramp, and several boat slips.  Activities at the park include picnicking, fishing, canoeing, hiking, and geocaching.  There are good restaurants close by, and it’s a short drive from destinations like Helen, Georgia too.

We got out on the lake a little after 9:00 on a Saturday morning and stayed out for about 90 minutes.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of kayaking on a lake like Burton is the leisurely pace and close proximity to the shoreline afforded by these boats.  You get to see so much more detail than you would on a motor boat or jet ski.  Some of the houses we saw just in the small portion of the lake we traveled were incredible.  Of course, we also appreciate the exercise we get from peddling the Hobies.  We plan to explore more lakes in north Georgia on the kayaks, and there are quite a few from which to choose.

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.

Little Rock Creek Falls

My wife loves adventures, and she has had quite a few.  My life is all the more richer because of the adventures we have shared in the eight years we have been married.  There have been times when I have “caused” adventures for which we didn’t necessarily make plans, but she has usually faced the challenges with enthusiasm and determination.  She is a gracious soul.  One such occasion happened about five years ago when I decided to search for a hiking trail that terminated at a waterfall — one of my favorite outdoor experiences.  I searched through a trail guide and selected one in north central Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Little Rock Creek Falls looked beautiful in all the photographs I saw, which perhaps encouraged me to be a bit too dismissive about the descriptions of the trail leading to the falls that described it as being difficult and dangerous with thick underbrush.

Little Rock Creek
Little Rock Creek

For young folks or very athletic, experienced hikers, this trail would not be a problem.  My wife and I are casual hikers.  We are occasional hikers.  We are quite often paved-trail hikers.  Little Rock Creek trail has no pavement.  The length of the trail from the road to the falls is a little less than a mile, and the elevation is consistent; however, the terrain is quite steep and rocky as the trail makes its way along a sharp embankment following the creek.  The understory is beautiful and thick with mountain laurel and rhododendron.  At this stage of our hiking careers, we were not yet using sticks of any kind (we each have two now).  Under normal conditions, we would have considered this to be a moderately difficult hike, but alas, I had the audacity to take my dear wife on this excursion not too long after she had broken her shoulder, which she guarded carefully along the way.  I was nervous the whole time, fearing that she would slip and reinjure her shoulder or break something else trying to protect it as she fell.

Although we should have waited until she was in better shape to make this hike, I can state with certainty that neither of us was disappointed with the terminus of this trail.  It was one of the most secluded and enchanting waterfalls I have ever seen in Georgia.  We did the obligatory selfie shot with the falls behind us, which became profile pictures for both of us on social media for several months.  I apologized to her profusely for selecting such a treacherous trail, especially considering that she was still recovering from an injury.  As usual, she simply said, “I’m fine.”  She is indeed.

Little Rock Creek big falls
Little Rock Creek big falls

Everything’s Included; No Problem

I have been on one cruise in my life.  When my sons were much younger, their mother and I signed up with a group of families we knew and booked a vacation on the Disney Cruise Lines for four nights in the Caribbean, dropping in on the Bahamas along the way.  It was a great trip, and Disney knows how to entertain adults and children almost equally.  I especially liked the all-inclusive nature of the experience, where food, most drinks, and all entertainment were part of the package — no need to carry around cash or credit cards.  Unfortunately, it was shortly after we came in from the sea and returned home that I realized something wasn’t quite right in my head (yes, the jokes could go on forever).  I stayed on that damned boat for an additional two weeks, or in other words, it took that long for me to regain my land legs, as my doctor diagnosed it.  The feeling was similar to the sense of motion when riding on a fast elevator . . .  without the elevator.  After about two weeks it began to diminish until it completely vanished, but I was miserable in the interim.  Most doctors refer to this problem as Mal de debarquement (disembarkment) syndrome.  It was bad enough that I will never get on a ship again.  It happens after I fly also, but inconsistently and not with symptoms as severe as those following the Disney cruise.

My wife loves cruises and went on several before we met.  In recent years, we have been searching for resorts that would offer the similar all-inclusive package without having to set sail to get it.  We heard from a colleague at work about the all-inclusive resorts at Jamaica, specifically at Montego Bay.  After a bit of research, we decided on the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Zilara is an adult-only resort and is actually a recent addition to the older but expanded and renovated Rose Hall Ziva, formerly owned and operated by Ritz Carlton.  The two complexes are directly adjacent to one another with shared restaurants and retailers.  All meals, room service, alcohol, gym privileges, and many amenities are included in the price of the room.  The rooms are very upscale, with bath tubs, fancy showers, large balconies and way-above-average balcony furniture.  The view from our room was fantastic.

Hyatt Montego Bay Jamaica
View from our balcony

Obviously, the options are limited at a land resort.  There are no ports-of-call, the entertainment is not very extensive, and the food is not as plentiful.  But, the rooms are vastly more spacious than a ship cabin, there are no rough seas, and my head did not spin, even though I drank enough alcohol to practically send it into orbit.  We were introduced to a drink called a Dirty Banana (I like to call it a Nasty Nanna) that became a good friend.  We did decide to pay a little extra for a couples’ massage in a cabana located only a few yards from the lapping waves of the shores.  It was heaven.  In short, the Zalara met up to, if not exceeded, our expectations for what an all-inclusive resort should be, and we would definitely consider returning at some point in the future.

Jamaican Rum
All in all, it was a pretty good vacation

Panther Creek Falls

I have expressed my appreciation for waterfalls in previous posts, and we are fortunate to live in an area of the country where creeks, lakes, and waterfalls are abundant.  Even better, many of these features are freely accessible at state parks, national forests, and recreational areas.  One of the most popular waterfalls close to our home is Panther Creek Falls, located a few miles south of Tallulah Gorge in northeast Georgia.  This waterfall is located in the Panther Creek Recreation Area at the end of a 3.5-mile moderate walk along Panther Creek. The National Forest parking area is located on old U.S. Highway 441 north of Clarkesville.

Panther Creek Falls Trail is 5.5 miles long and follows Panther Creek through stands of hemlock and white pine along steep, rocky bluffs of the creek. The trails passes a series of cascades as well as Panther Creek Falls. It terminates where Davidson Creek joins Panther Creek.  When my younger son and I explored the trail last February, we decided to take the 3.5-mile hike to the falls and return to the parking area for a 7-mile excursion.  We had plenty of company on that mild winter day, with other hikers and campers all along the path.  The trail is noted for its beautiful variety of wildflowers and ferns. The stream offers excellent opportunities for trout fishermen too.  Some rock scrambling is required, and there are some steep sections, but much of the hike is relatively flat.  Erosion has caused several trail sections to drop sharply and suddenly to the creek below, demanding extra caution.  I was amazed at how many families with small children were there when we hiked the trail — some were even carrying strollers with them!

Panther Creek Falls
Panther Creek Falls

I was so enamored with the trail that I took my wife back at a later date, and while we only hiked in and out about a mile or so, she could appreciate the beauty of the forest and the creek without seeing the falls.  A large, shallow pool forms at the base of the falls, which is a wonderful destination for families and hiking groups.  The setting is beautiful, surrounded by hills covered in trees and laurel.  For those who like seclusion and privacy when they commune with nature, this recreation area is probably not a good choice.  In the warmer parts of the year, I’m sure it gets quite crowded.

Panther Creek Falls
View from the top of Panther Creek Falls

The naming of the creek is a source of curiosity for me.  I have not read anything official that links the name to animals that may have inhabited the area in the past.  According to some sources, a subspecies of the puma, the Florida panther, survives in a small, isolated and precarious population at the rapidly urbanizing southern tip of Florida. However, these animals were once widespread, even inhabiting portions of Georgia.  Another subspecies, the eastern puma (also known as cougar or mountain lion) may have once occupied regions of north Georgia.  Although in recent years there have been claims of sightings in north Georgia and South Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the eastern puma extinct and removed it from the list of protected wildlife and plants under the Endangered Species Act.  Regardless of nomenclature of the falls, this trail offers a great opportunity to get outside and enjoy the natural resources that are so abundant in the hills and mountains of north Georgia.  We will definitely return.

Letting It Go

Sometime around 1970, my father received an invitation from his uncle to take our family to a house that he and his family owned on the outskirts of the small town of Blue Ridge in the north Georgia mountains.  We all fell in love with the area and began taking short vacations there, along with my mother’s sister’s family, including the cousins that my sister and I grew up with.  Soon thereafter, my great uncle helped my parents find a small vacant house for sale located just a few blocks from the quaint downtown of Blue Ridge.  Dating back to the turn of the century, the house had been vacant for years and was in rather rough shape, but my father was an electrician by trade and a very good carpenter.  With his uncle’s help, Dad was able to make the little house habitable again.

Typical of my father’s utilitarian style, the house was restored with very baseline interior finishes: pine sheet paneling, unpainted molding, and linoleum square tile partially covered in large carpet pieces salvaged from our primary home.  My mother, her mother, and her sister all tried to do what they could to add some charm to the interior on a very limited budget.  Dad filled the three main rooms with furniture that friends and family had thrown out, making the minor repairs necessary to make them functional.  The rooms served as living quarters and bedrooms, with enough beds and pull-out sofas to sleep up to fourteen people.  He added a second bathroom, purchased the lowest-end appliances for the kitchen, and installed space heaters discarded by our home church.  He added a propane tank behind the house that he found for free — a tank designed to be buried in the ground with the typical metal column rising from the middle to enclose and provide access to the meter and valves.  Of course, he mounted the tank above ground.  I joke here about my father’s minimalist approach with this vacation house affectionately, with the full realization that purchasing and maintaining a second home was an amazing accomplishment for a lower-middle-class family like ours.  If nothing else, Dad was remarkably resourceful.

Mountain Vacation House
Family Mountain Vacation House

Over the course of the next forty years, my parents shared the use of this vacation home with extended family and close friends.  My sister and I and my sons, my cousins, and now my wife all have wonderful memories of such happy, peaceful times spent at this little sanctuary.  As my parents’ generation aged, they could no longer maintain the place, so the responsibility was left to my sister and me.  Now, the house belongs to my wife and me, and my sister and my cousins still take a vacation or two every year to the house, as do we.

Regrettably, I was not blessed with my father’s skills.  My wife and I have done some painting, and family members have graciously chipped in to do some minor repairs, but we have also spent quite a bit of money in recent years trying to keep the house from collapsing.  Due to poor foundations, settling, and just general old age, the house has become even less “tight” than it was in the past.  It has suffered from damage from ground hogs in the crawl space beneath and other rodents in the walls and ceilings.  Mice started to find their way inside several years ago, but the most disturbing invasion was evidenced this past fall when my wife and I found a three-foot-long snake skin that had been left behind in the kitchen.  In a state of temporary despair, I sat on the edge of one of the beds and told my wife, “I’m done.”  She wasn’t exactly sure what I meant!  We had a lengthy discussion and came to the difficult decision to finally give up on attempting to salvage the unsalvageable.  We are going to demolish the house and build something new in its place.

We spent our weekend sitting on the front porch rockers using our iPads to look for house plans.  My wife found a charming cottage plan, and we have taken the first steps toward this big change.  My sister and cousins are understandably saddened by the impending loss of a house that holds so many happy memories for all of us.  So are we.  But, they do understand why this is really our only alternative.  By this time next year, we hope to have a new place for the family to retreat and continue to enjoy the many opportunities for relaxation and entertainment that this area provides.  The town of Blue Ridge has drastically changed from the sleepy (if not dying) little village it was when my parents bought the vacation home so many years ago.  I will save for another post my thoughts about the changes we have seen over the decades in Blue Ridge.

It is never easy to let go of anchors from the past, especially when they are so concretely identified with people we have loved dearly who are no longer with us.  As cliche as it sounds, this vacation house was truly a home to our families and close friends.  We hate to see it go.  We are fortunate to have very good photographic and video-graphic records of the house, happy times, and the people who enriched our lives there.  We look forward to a new, modern structure to enjoy for many years to come, but there is a definite sense of loss as we say goodbye to this special house forever.

Restoring My Soul

My wife and I have fairly stressful jobs, hers much more than mine.  I have mentioned before how much we like to be outdoors when we can, and we look for such opportunities and plan for them when we take vacation trips.  We also enjoy kayaking, and we are fortunate enough to have two Hobie kayaks, which are equipped with peddles so we can use our legs to propel them instead of just paddling.  Our previous home was on a rather large lake, so kayaking was as simple as pulling the boat out of the garage and going across the yard to the water’s edge and taking off.  Now, we don’t get out as much and have to plan for the water outings, but we live in an area with plenty of small lakes close by to explore, and a few very large ones not too far away.  During the warm months of the year, we load the kayaks on our pickup truck and head out to one of the nearby lakes, often after we get off work, just for a couple of hours.

Lake Russell 2
Lake Russell, Habersham County, GA

Being out on the water gives us a chance to slow down, talk, laugh, recall the wonderful times we’ve had together, and make plans for the future.  Some of the places we go are fairly secluded, although there are usually a few people around either fishing or swimming.  She and I typically stay out for about an hour.  We enjoy being together, and while we like to be with family and friends, we also cherish the times we spend with just each other.  We work well together; as we often say, “We’re a good team.”  Beyond the recreation and exercise that this activity provides, I think for both of us it offers an opportunity to reflect on how precious time is, how beautiful the world is, how grateful we are for each other, and how lucky we are to be alive.