(Narrative and photos courtesy of Tom Ward)
As a child I first came to appreciate the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains on hikes up the family property with my Grandpa. My grandparents would often let me go out on my own and hike up Jim’s Branch turning over river rocks or flipping decaying logs looking for salamanders & snakes. I could find a Dusky (Desmognathus fuscus), Black-bellied (Desmognathus quadramaculatus), Two-lined (Eurycea wilderae) or other species of salamander under almost every other rock, though catching the big ones long enough to identify them was quite a challenge.
Up at the top of the mountain where Jim’s Branch just starts to flow from the ground, larval Spring salamanders (Gyrinophilus porphyritcus) with their fanning gills are found. Occasionally I would find a bright red adult in the sphagnum moss. In decayed logs I would often find the slimy salamanders (Plethodon teyahalee). On humid summer nights shining a flashlight on the old rock walls around the cabin all sorts of critters could be found in the cracks, including three species of plethodon salamanders (Plethodon montanus, Plethodon yonahlossee & Plethodon teyahalee).
Finding a Yonahlossee was always the treat as they were less frequent and had the colorful red back. This childhood exposure to natural diversity inspired me to later get a master’s degree in ecology. I still find that the opportunity to have an afternoon to hike around and explore this property makes me feel so alive.
This property has been in my family for over 85 years and five generations have been able to appreciate its beauty. I am very appreciative of my parents and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy for working together to preserve this beautiful land. The Swanannoa Mountains are a unique and isolated range that is under increasing development pressure. I hope the preservation of this property will inspire other land owners and preservation agencies to preserve as much of this natural heritage as possible so that there will always be natural creeks and woodlands where kids can explore and discover their connections to nature.