After prepping my courses and research projects for the new semester, I got sick and was bedridden for several days. Even after the worst of the illness was over, it was weeks before I was back to normal. So, it wasn’t until the last Friday of January that I was ready to venture out and visit a few Carolina bays.
Carolina bays are geological formations that are inevitably described as “mysterious” because no thoroughly satisfying explanation of their origins has been established. On the other hand, I believe we should disregard one specific idea that appeals to some people – the notion that they were formed by extraterrestrial visitors.
Carolina bays are elliptical indentations in the earth that vary greatly in size from one to thousands of acres. As a rule, their longer axes are oriented from northwest to southeast, and elevated rims of white sand are typical of the southeast ends. Some are filled with water forming bay lakes or ponds.
There are about 500,000 bays distributed along the eastern coast of the U.S., from New Jersey to Florida, but the majority are located in the Carolinas, and about 80% of them are within eastern North Carolina.
The name “bay” is not meant to suggest a coastal inlet, but rather reflects the fact that many bay trees (sweet, red, and loblolly) usually grow in and around these areas.
My plan for the day included visits to three state parks: Jones Lake State Park, Singletary Lake State Park, and Bay Tree Lake State Park.
Jones Lake State Park
Jones Lake State Park is located 115 miles southwest of Greenville. I left the house before sunrise so that I could arrive at the park at opening – 8:00 a.m. I was right on schedule, traveling south on NC-242 towards the park entrance, when four-tenths of a mile from my destination the road was closed. A ten-mile detour took me to a portion of NC-242 south of the park entrance, where again the road was closed. I had no success finding an alternative means of accessing the park, and decided to drive around the barricades and travel down the closed portion of NC-242. This allowed me to reach the park, which was open, so clearly the signs had failed to mention that the road was only closed to through traffic and using it to reach the park was perfectly fine. Having thus paid “the price of admission,” I parked at the Visitors Center, laced up my boots, and picked up a park brochure.
The recreational area by the Visitors Center is large, with a bathhouse, clean restrooms, lots of grills and picnic tables, a large playing field, a swimming area, and a boathouse at the end of a pier. I set off walking north along a route that formed a six-and-a-half-mile, inverted lollipop by combining half of the Cedar Loop Trail, the Bay Trail, and the Salters Lake Trail. This allowed me both to walk around all of Jones Lake (224 acres) and to get a view of Salters Lake (315 acres) situated just northwest of Jones Lake.
I was the only person in the almost completely silent park, and the entire trail was level and easy to walk. The ground near the lake was sandy, but covered by a mostly buried protective sheeting that held the soil firmly in place. Protruding tree roots and occasional rocks created the only hazards. There were two lake overlooks along the first half of Bay Trail, and a third overlook and a (closed) fishing pier along the second half.
The portions of Bay Trail further away from the lake passed through forests of bay and pine trees. About halfway along, at the northeastern end of the bay, Salters Lake Trail provided a twisting path to the park’s second bay lake. This trail passed through areas that had recently been subjected to controlled burns, so much of the ground was blackened. Scattered on a boardwalk were some loblolly bay tree seedpods. looking like what I imagined elven jewels might be like. The trail ended at a small clearing where I looked out across Salters Lake – a lonely and peaceful scene.
The pines in the vicinity were very tall, and although I could hear many woodpeckers high up in their tops, I was unable to get a good look at even one. At a park I visit closer to home I easily see lots of pileated woodpeckers, so I have the impression that they are not especially shy. This made me wonder if the endangered cockaded woodpeckers might be more skittish birds and if they could be the ones I was hearing in the trees at Jones Lake State Park.
During the last part of my hike I encountered a park worker. He told me to be alert for others who were performing additional controlled burnings, but although I could see the smoke drifting through the area at the Visitors Center, I never got close enough to see exactly what the procedure is like.
Before leaving I stopped at the Visitors Center again to use the restroom and ask a few question of the woman volunteering at the desk. She did not have good responses to any of my queries, but suggested that I visit the educational displays located in the room next to her office. These were interesting, but also failed to address my questions. It was not until I returned home and completed some online research that I had my answers.
The park brochure mentioned that six bay lakes were situated within North Carolina State Parks, and I wanted to know the identity of the six. The office volunteer said Jones Lake, Salters Lake, Singletary Lake, White Lake, Bushy Lake, and Bay Tree Lake were the six. I was soon to learn, however, that White Lake is not located within a State Park, and that Bushy Lake is neither a lake nor is it part of a State Park.
I also wondered if the bay trees common to the area were related to the plants that provide the bay leaves frequently used in cooking. The volunteer told me they were not, but information I found later indicated that they are.
Finally, because of the similar shapes, I wondered if the pocosin lakes I had visited last year were examples of Carolina bays. The volunteer was unfamiliar with the pocosin lakes, but subsequent research revealed that they are indeed examples of bays. In fact, Lake Phelps, located at Pettigrew State Park, is one of the six bay lakes to which the previously mentioned brochure refers.
While searching online for information that might be useful on this outing, I ran across many references to White Lake. Although I never found any information about hiking at the lake, many people called it the “most famous” and “best loved” of the Carolina bays, and I decided I should check it out. After leaving Jones Lake State Park, it was only an eight-mile journey to the town named after White Lake.
I drove around the entire perimeter of the lake and never once caught view of it. All the surrounding property is either private or commercial and jammed with structures that support the business of summer vacationing. Large areas were walled off so that the only available sights were the tops of acres of closely-packed trailers and mobile homes. In other spots, dozens of shabby, empty-for-the-winter trailers were more exposed to prying eyes, occasionally interspersed with rundown motels. Other attractions included a water park, a miniature golf course, a go-cart park, and several pizza parlors, take-out stands, dinners, and cheesy souvenir shops. It wasn’t long before I chalked up White Lake as a crappy imitation of a lousy vacation town and moved on.
Singletary Lake State Park
I had hardly enough time to get the bad taste of White Lake out of my mouth before the five-mile drive south was over and I pulled into the entrance of Singletary Lake State Park. Here I encountered a sign stating that visitors needed to register at the park office before entering, so there I headed. At the office, I met a friendly park ranger who explained that during spring, summer, and fall the park is only accessible to residence of the group camping facilities, but that I was free to explore the park as it was deserted in the winter.
The park was quiet, the lake was pretty, and it didn’t take long to walk the one-mile loop trail that was partially closed due to high waters resulting from recent rains. Smoke from the controlled burn at Jones Lake State Park was visible over Singletary Lake. I imagined that campers who enjoyed boating on the lake would throng to the park in warmer weather. Potential visitors should keep in mind, however, that cabins are rented only to parties of at least 20, and every renting group must be part of a verifiable organization. (Like the mob?)
Bay Tree Lake State Park
Next, I doubled back to the town of White Lake, and then drove the five miles east to Bay Tree Lake State Park.
Because I was moving quite slowly, I could spot the pull-in for the unmarked park entrance beside NC-41. The area was very sandy, I immediately pulled off the road and parked on an elevated grassy area. A sign located beside the part of the road leading into the trees provided little information about the park other than to specify that it was “undeveloped” and to suggest that visitors would not be shot by law-abiding folk.
The only online information I had found about the park indicated that the road ran 1.7 miles before reaching the lake. I was feeling a bit tried and decided I would rather drive to the lake than walk, but I was unsure about the conditions of the road. At the very entrance was a stretch of deep sand and afterwards I could see a couple of flooded areas, so I opted for walking.
I hadn’t hiked long before the initial tricky but navigable spots gave way to a relatively solid and flat road surface that stretched as far as the eye could see. Based on this new perspective on the road, I chose to turn around and walk the quarter mile back to the car so that I could get to the lake more quickly and with less effort. Along the way, I studied the trouble spots carefully so that I would know how to get around them in the car, and my plans for steering past these known difficulties worked out perfectly. Soon I was driving along the solid part of the road that I had encountered on foot, and in no time, was covering new ground – ground that I had not been able to see when walking the road.
As it turned out, the easy-driving part of the road did not last long, and soon I encountered many expanses of deep sand through which I drove quickly to avoid getting stuck. Unfortunately, almost immediately that is exactly what happened; the car bottomed out, the wheels spun, and I could not budge my tiny Toyota Echo.
I got out of the car and began collecting small tree branches and shoving them under the tires. Thinking that the sand might be like the snows I had been stuck in up north, I was trying to provide some traction so that I might get the car to pull itself out of the center of the road and onto the higher ground beside it. When the branches alone did not work, I added cardboard from the trunk, as well as the floor mats from inside the car. None of these efforts had the desired effect.
It became clear that the middle of the car was resting on so much sand that the wheels would never touch the ground unless I could lower them. With this goal in mind, I spent the next half-hour face down in the road, clawing at the ground, and pulling armfuls of sand and dirt from under the car. I was never able to remove enough of the road from under the car to achieve my goal, and after I was thoroughly exhausted I realized that I was going to need help escaping from my predicament.
As I walked out the park road towards the highway, I recalled a recent conversation with the grad students working with me in our academic advising center. They were in disbelief that I do not own a cell phone. They asked, “What would you do if your car broke down?” I told them I would do the same thing that everybody did before there were cell phones. They had absolutely no idea what that might be, and I imagined they thought that in such cases people just curled up and died.
After I got to the highway, I walked a mile-and-a-half east to a gated, residential community. I was unbathed, unshaven, sweaty, and covered in filth. My hands were a combination of black dirt and red blood, because I had many cuts from frantic contact with roots and the car’s undercarriage while tearing at the dirt in the forest road. When I entered the manager’s office, the secretary gave me a big smile and asked me how I was doing. I explained my situation and expressed my hope that I could use the phone to call for a towing service.
The woman, Shelly, was new to the area and was not familiar with any nearby garages, so instead she called Cooter, their maintenance guy. Cooter was off-site, but promised to be back soon. In the meanwhile, Shelly offered me a seat and suggested that her boss might also be able to help once he was done speaking with a pair of new clients. Her boss, Jim, was a soft-spoken man at least seven feet tall. He confirmed that there were no towns with tow trucks in the area and, like Shelly, suggested I await Cooter’s return.
Cooter was short, older than me, and spoke with a heavy southern accent. He laughed as he talked, and he asked me several questions about my car and its location. I was not certain what he was saying so I wasn’t sure I answered his questions correctly. Nevertheless, Jim told Cooter to take me with him to Cooter’s home to get his four-wheel drive truck, and to use the vehicle to pull my car out of the sand. Although Cooter didn’t seem thrilled with this idea, he remained cheerful and had no apparent intention of failing to do what his employer asked.
We went out to his small pickup truck to make the drive to Cooter’s home just a mile west of the park entrance. The bench seat was pulled far forward to accommodate Cooter’s short legs, and the floor on the passenger’s side was piled to the bottom of the dashboard with trash. I could barely manage to wedge myself into the seat.
Cooter’s house was located in a maze created by garbage and junk piled into stacks of various heights around the property. He mumbled something as he opened the passenger’s door to the larger truck, and began extracting loads of trash that formed a new pile in his yard. I was thankful that he was making space in the truck, and after a while he motioned for me to get in. I was taken aback when I found the cab so cluttered with refuse that there was barely room to squeeze inside. I scratched my head wondering where the removed rubbish had come from.
With four-wheel-drive and lots of clearance, Cooter had no trouble navigating the road into the park, and we soon found my abandoned car. He hooked up a tow chain and had it pulled out of the sand trap in a jiffy. Cooter promised to keep an eye on me to be sure I got all the way out to the highway without any trouble, but disappeared almost as soon as I began to the make my way out. Happily, I managed the road successfully, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as I moved onto the highway and headed for home.
As I drove north, I thought about how generous and kind Shelly, Jim, and Cooter had been. I wondered how I would have made it out of Bay Tree Lake State Park without their assistance, and in that moment considered them to be the most wonderful people I had ever met.
In the very next instant, a completely different thought popped into my head – I’ll bet they all voted for Trump.