I’ve lived in Asheville for nearly 3 years now, and had barely explored other parts of the state. The Appalachian Mountains give Western North Carolina much recognition, but I recently found there were many more places rich in wildlife and unique landscapes in other parts of the state. We planned a short trip to go scuba diving on the wrecks off the coast, while camping for 4 nights along the way. The route would take us from Asheville to Uwharrie National Forest, Sandhills Gamelands, Green Swamp Preserve, and Morehead City.
Uwharrie National Forest
The Uwharrie National Forest is the smallest of the 4 national forests in North Carolina. It was given federal protection in the early 1960’s by President John F. Kennedy. The forest gets it’s name from the Uwharrie Mountains. Legend has it that the word Uwharrie came from the indigenous Native American tribes that once inhabited the area. While the mountains are small today, only peaking at about 1,000 feet, they’re estimated to have been quite large 500 million years ago. We spent our first two nights in The Uwharrie National Forest with one being at Badin Lake.
Our third night brought us to the Sandhills Gamelands which offers one of the most intact longleaf pine habitats in the country. Longleaf pine forests are down to approximately 3% of their historic range in the United States. The majority of the longleaf pines are on average 100 years old. Since camping is ironically only allowed during the same time as hunting season, we found a section where we could drive off road through the trees to sleep for the night. As night approached the calls of a chuck will’s-widow was heard in the treetops, as well as a plethora of katydids. The Sandhills Gamelands is home to 2 undescribed species of katydids that can be differentiated by their calls. If you’re interested in exploring much of the gamelands by car, I’d recommend bringing a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We spent much of our time repeatedly digging my car out of the sand.
Green Swamp Preserve
Not far from the Sandhills Gamelands is the Green Swamp Preserve. Sitting passenger side during an attempt to make a U-turn thinking we had missed the exit, my Honda took a brief trip into the swampy shoulder of the road. Luckily for us the very first car that drove by was from the Nature Conservancy and had a steel hook to pull our car out. It was after talking to the folks that pulled us out, we realized we had been going in the right direction and was not even a mile from the entrance to the preserve. The Green Swamp Preserve is known for having many species of orchids and insectivorous plants such at venus flytraps and pitcher plants. To find the flytraps, you almost need to get on your hands and knees and really peel back the understory because they only rise about an inch off the ground. Up until 1977, the land was heavily harvested for timber from the longleaf pines. Today the Nature Conservancy is planting more longleaf pines to help restore the land to it’s natural state. Controlled burns have helped speed up the process due to the burns helping allowing the longleaf pine cones to release their seeds and create new growth.
The whole purpose of this trip was to dive off the coast of North Carolina. During World War II there was a period of steady U-boat battle off the North Carolina coast. Residents of the time reported hearing and feeling explosions as they went off. German submarine U-352 was sunk by depth chargers dropped from the US Coast Guard on 5/9/42. Out of the entire crew on U-352, 17 were killed and the rest taken as prisoners of war. Today, U-352 lies in 121 feet of water and has become a popular dive location. This was the wreck we were hoping to dive on, but due to weather conditions we had to dive closer inshore. We dove on the wreck of the USS Indra which was used as a repair ship during WWII. While
Since my underwater camera is not working at the moment and I don't own a housing for my DSLR, no pictures were taken on these dives. The second dive on the wreck was by far the best. Rather than moving around and exploring everything, we moved slowly and patiently and saw far more wildlife than when you frantically move search. While watching an octopus feed within some small corals, a sand tiger shark swam by and caught all of ours attention. We pretty much forgot about the octopus at that point, even though I would say seeing the octopus feeding and changing its color was far more exciting. Octopus are some of the smartest cephalopods and have evolved eyesight that can be compared closely with our own. We also saw two toadfish which are ambush predators, hiding and waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim by. These fish look like something out of a alien movie. Arrow crabs filled gaps within the corals, barracudas hovered making the slightest movements, and a school of amber jacks made a wall so thick it nearly disoriented you. Minus surfacing on the wrong boat on the first dive, Both went very well.
My reason for writing this story on our trip is not just to document a great time, but to show you don't need to travel far to experience new landscapes, culture, wildlife, and history. Many people are quick to think they need to travel to another country to experience something new. Anyone in Asheville can tell you if you drive just a few miles outside of town, it's a whole different way of living. I've found that the state of North Carolina has many beautiful parts to visit outside of the Appalachian Mountains, and we barely scratched the surface.