Only 10 hours into 2016, more than 50 hikers and a dozen dogs braved rain-slick boulders and ankle-deep mud to march three miles through Raven Rock State Park – starting the year with sweaty vitality.
Their Friday morning trudge took them under 120-foot cliffs that dripped with a week’s worth of rain, and along the swollen banks of the Cape Fear River, where coffee-colored water swirled around tree trunks and turned the trail into a slippery obstacle course.
The hikers pounced, outfitted with sticks, binoculars and new Christmas boots.
“I’ve got a whistle if anybody sees anything cool,” said Jessie Summers, a park staffer. “If a snake comes out.”
The state parks system, which turns 100 this year, organized 46 such hikes in North Carolina, a tradition aimed at drawing people outdoors on the day they’re already feeling the tug of resolutions. Elsewhere around the state, hikers climbed the Grindstone Trail up Pilot Mountain and attacked the Sugarloaf Trailhead at Carolina Beach.
But this year offered the added attraction of nature in one of its wilder moods. High water canceled the hikes at Jordan Lake. On a typical day at Raven Rock, the Cape Fear rises only to 2 or 3 feet, making a poky course through the park. On Friday, it stood at 12.5 feet, racing through Harnett County at a level just before flood stage. A week ago, when Christmas crowds poured in during the streak of 70-degree days, it rose 3 feet higher.
Superintendent Jeff Davidson warned hikers who ventured down the 100-plus steps to the river’s banks that four men had recently slid down the trail into the water, requiring rescue. Nothing serious, though.
“You could see their finger marks in the mud,” he said. “So we had to rope them out.”
Davidson said Raven Rock often gets more New Year’s Day hikers than any park other than Eno River in Durham. Betty Harmon, who described herself as the park’s “front desk goddess,” proudly showed off Raven Rock’s collection of rubber dung samples, which visitors use to play “Name That Poo.”
Davidson led hikers past loblolly pines and mountain laurel, took them over creeks that burbled at twice their normal depth and pointed out the spot where a polyphemus moth cocoon had hung for three years. He pointed out a lichen known to grow only in a few spots in the world other than the north-facing cliffs of the Cape Fear.
“It’s so rare that they didn’t know if it was a lichen or a moss,” Davidson said. “So they called it ‘The Thing.’”
Along for the ride
Hikers pushed strollers over wet roots and tugged at German shepherds and corgis on stretch leashes. One lucky Chihuahua, Elliott, rode in a Pooch Pouch made by Outward Hound.
“He goes on all of our hikes with us,” said Amy Smith of Fayetteville, dog strapped to her middle. “And he gets carried.”
The sun appeared for the first time in days, which tempted Bill Ormandy of Clayton to other forms of recreation. But he opted for the forest and grandchildren, watching the 8- and 9-year-old boys tear down the trail at the front of the pack.
“I was going to go golfing,” he said. “But I haven’t been in the woods with these guys for a while.”
Nobody got fished out of the river. Nobody endured more than an embarrassing stumble on a tricky rock. And with January pledges still fresh in their heads, they promised to come back.