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Pickens County ready for a walk in the woods

By Dan Pool
    We are heading into the time of year when it’s best to get out in the woods. The leaves are beginning to change, which adds plenty of color to the north Georgia mountains and it’s not too hot to hike around without getting soaked in sweat.
    And for me, the best thing about this time of year is that the double scourge of the woods - yellow jackets and poison ivy - are about to be done for until next summer.
    I don’t buy into much of the New Age ideas of communing with nature but I will testify that it makes you feel good to get out and walk around the woods just to see what you can see.
    Old timers used to refer to a walk as a constitutional – because it was thought to be something good for your constitution (health). I suspect they didn’t worry much about distance, heart rate and special walking shoes as we do today. A walk used to be a chance to collect your thoughts far from the maddening crowd while also getting some fresh air.
    For those people who are always logging steps on some fancy watch, I think you should have a setting where you get double bonus steps for walking on plain earth rather than a walking path. Though paved paths are fine for exercise, it doesn’t compare to really wandering through the woods anymore than Captain D’s compares to freshly caught trout. We know walking in general makes us feel good, but getting outside in nature - on crisp autumn afternoons or even frigid winter days - can do much for our health. Charles Dickens clocked up a huge number of miles on foot - both in London’s damp city streets and England’s countryside. It’s estimated he walked 12 miles per day - in about two and a half hours. His FitBit stats would be amazing.
    A 2012 study found that participants with clinical depression who took a walk in nature experienced improved memory, while an earlier 2008 study found that healthy adults experienced a mental boost after walking for an hour in the park.
    For all the Henry David Thoreau-wannabes, Pickens County is on the verge of opening up two new Waldens.
    First we have the Talking Rock Nature Preserve, right off Highway 515 on the Gilmer County line. This 211-acre tract has been protected and is in the planning stage of trails and a Frisbee golf course through the work of the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land (STPAL).
    Professional designers for mountain biking hope to open at least five miles of trail there for mountain biking as well as walking and trail running. They are also planning a world class Frisbee golf course where, at no charge, anyone who wants to add a little sport to their “constitutional” can fling Frisbees while they enjoy the woods.
    STPAL has as their mission that their properties are destined to be used “for the quiet enjoyment of nature.” Birding may also be a featured activity there. The property is protected now and some signage marks the location but trails and parking are still in the works.
    I met with STPAL director Bill Jones and the trail designers  in late summer and they emphasized that the park will be much better in the long run if they start with trails that “flow” with the terrain so it is worthwhile to wait rather than rush to clear out some paths wherever volunteers saw fit.
    Following this announcement in July, we again hit the outdoor jackpot this month when the county joined the local Mountain Conservation Trust to permanently protect the Narrow Gate tract which adjoins the Burnt Mountain Preserve. It will also sport hiking trails eventually.
    This piece of property has long been considered a crown jewel for preservation. Sitting near Bent Tree, Burnt Mountain and above Grandview Lake, much concern was expressed when development was proposed there a decade ago.
    Having this under conservation restrictions not only safeguards water supply and our views from town looking to the east, but it opens up some good hiking terrain. While the existing Burnt Mountain Preserve has limited trails, they are not suited for a wide range of hiking as they are very steep—how else could they be on the side of a mountain.
    This Narrow Gate acquisition totaling 282 acres encompasses the base of the mountains and should allow the existing trails to be worked into larger,  and flatter, walkways, at least flatter by north Georgia standards.
    These two new natural areas are tremendous assets for us in Pickens County. Without state or national park land, people here are deprived of the opportunity to wander in the woods, something that everyone should do occasionally.