A welcome walk in the forest

The Dupont State Recreational Forest is an ecologically significant treasure that we must take care not to wear out. Thanks to recent state budget allocations, the ability to more easily do so is in sight.

The forest welcomes visitors to its more than 10,000 acres of famous trails and waterfalls year-round and all it asks is that you leave it just as you found it — pristine. The fight to hang on to the land began long before 683,000 visitors (in 2015 alone) began streaming in.”The friends were here first,” said Jason Guidry, the DuPont State Recreational Forest Supervisor, during a tour of the brand new Aleen Steinberg Center. “They predate even the forest service here.”The visitors center is named in honor of Steinberg, who spent summer vacations in Cedar Mountain with her husband and children and fell in love with the place when it was still owned by the DuPont Corporation. When the manufacturer closed, Steinberg and 21 other local residents got together to prevent the sale of the land to a developer intent on building a high-end, gated community.That group became the “Friends of the Falls.”If you begin your day at the visitors center you are likely to encounter a volunteer from the Friends organization manning the desk dispensing information to guests. The current incarnation of the group is called “Friends of DuPont Forest,” and they are an actively involved volunteer service organization.”Let’s see, we had over 2,000 visitors July Fourth weekend alone,” said Jack Soyak as he checked his logbook. “I’ve been a volunteer for three years, but I’ve been here working in the forest for 14 years in some capacity.”With Guidry as your guide, a tour of the forest makes for an adventure, a history lesson and an education in how to tour large groups of guests through your home with grace and patience.There are three must see falls at DSRF — High Falls, Triple Falls and Bridal Veil Falls (of “The Last of the Mohicans” and “The Hunger Games” movie fame) and they are all breathtaking in their own way.Before making it to High Falls, the first stop of the day, a man has run up to Guidry to report a snake on the trail, a copperhead to be exact. “OK, I’ll be right there,” he said with no hesitation, turning the all-terrain vehicle around. He found the correct equipment, handled the situation — seemingly non-plussed by it all — and off we went again with our day, citizens safe and snake relocated.Out of the $22.3 billion budget which took effect in July, DSRF will see $3 million for various parking and utility improvements and $630,000 for nine new staff positions. It is obvious that money will be put to good use after spending a day with Guidry, who is always friendly and cheerful, yet clearly everything to everyone once he is in the forest.Because he and his staff are in uniform, it is difficult to go far along the trail without someone posing a question or actually posing. At one point a group of young men unable to fit everyone in their frame asked if the forest supervisor would snap their photo. Guidry not only took the picture, he turned and went right on explaining about the spray cliff communities and how they are able to grow on the constantly wet rock faces.Along the trail we met people from Great Britain, Poland and France. “Over 50 percent of the visitors to the forest are non-North Carolinians.” Guidry explained. “The trails are all enjoyed by varied groups too — mountain bikers, hikers, horseback riders. Nearly 90 miles of trails, Lake Julia, Lake Dense, fishing and the falls, there’s something for everyone.”The end of the day takes us by the overlook down to what is known as the ‘donut’ hole.”On a clear day you can see all the way to the Blue Ridge,” Guidry said. The view is magnificent. The North Carolina Council of State voted at the beginning of September to accept a 476-acre piece of land in the middle as a gift from the DuPont Corporation.”We are on the verge of ‘unlocking’ the donut hole so the DuPont Corporation can gift it to the state,” said Rep. Chris Whitmire (R-District 113). “When this occurs, the property will serve both functional and recreational purposes.”Whitmire has worked with multiple agencies throughout the process to get to this point — the N.C. Department of Agriculture, Public Safety, the N.C. National Guard and the DuPont Corporation.”The N.C. National Guard will conduct first responder training along with other related missions,” said Whitmire. “These will provide jobs and economic stimulus to the area while filling emergency response gaps across Western North Carolina. Additionally, the donut hole will provide parking for Forest visitors, which is currently limited along with access to additional trails, waterfalls and recreational areas.”The vote was an important milestone, but they have other hurdles before the land transfer can take place. DuPont operated an X-ray film plant on the site, so environmental officials must have a cleanup agreement finalized before it’s all said and done.Our tour of the forest brings us full circle back to the log cabin-like visitors center, past fellow travelers that look familiar, and ones that are just beginning their journey through the forest.”Do you need directions?” Guidry asks of a hiker that looks a tad confused.The DSRF is a welcoming North Carolina treasure.There are many stewards of this forest home past and present, volunteer and staff — as visitors we should count ourselves among that group and preserve what they have worked to protect for generations to come.