Blue Ridge


After a very rainy, peaceful sleep, we meandered to the group area for a breakfast of grits, oatmeal, assorted pastries, yogurt and creations with leftover fried chicken.

We loaded up the van to head for the Skinny Dip Falls trailhead. Along the hike, we were educated on identification of the Indian cucumber root, which has an edible root that tastes like cucumber with the texture of a carrot. It’s always beneficial to be aware of natural food elements in your forest surroundings. After a short but brisk hike to the falls, we took in the magnificent wonders of the waterfall.

We left Skinny Dip Falls and went back to camp to prepare for snorkeling in the Davidson River for a peek into the habitat of the hellbender salamander. We arrived at the Pisgah National Forest ranger station for an informational meeting with Lori Williams, a wildlife biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. She educated us on everything hellbender. We even got to meet Rocky. Rocky is an almost fifteen-year-old hellbender that has been raised in captivity and is used for educational purposes.

Following our visit with Lori and Rocky, Ben and Reid (wildlife technicians) accompanied us to the river, where we suited up in warm clothes or wetsuits and snorkeled in the frigid water. Our group goal of spotting three elusive hellbenders in the wild was accomplished.

Thankfully, we warmed up in dry clothes and continued our adventure to Dolly’s where we revelled in luscious ice cream cones. We finished our eventful day with dinner in Brevard.

We returned to camp exhausted but satiated and ready to greet tomorrow with excitement and eagerness to continue to learn from Melissa, Megan, Chris, and one another.

Blue Ridge

“Little Girl Magnolia”

This morning we had the privilege of exploring the NC Arboretum grounds, where we saw a wide variety of plants, lizards, and tadpoles. After a quick stroll through the Bonsai forest including one piece created to look like the spruce fir forest of Mount Mitchell, Dr. Mildred Barya of UNC-Asheville led us through a powerful poetry exercise.

First, we read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver to inspire our inner writer. The group dissected the poem and made personal connections to the theme and the healing powers of the natural world. Then, we were tasked with constructing our own poem in just 20 minutes! The caveat: we had to use 4 out of 7 words provided AND all of the five senses in our writing. The theme would be around motion and stillness. Take a look at Sandy’s beautiful poem:

Little Girl Magnolia

Your outstretched, bent, and gnarled


shield the musty, decaying

world beneath.

With leaves of velvet, fluttering

and filtering the searing heat

from above.

The vibrant abundance of your

chartreuse family rid me of

my loneliness.

Allowing me to escape the

despair that once bound me.

Your cool, wispy shade

envelops my body and

restores my hope.

That one day the inner,

ancient voices that haunt

me will seize.

And I will again savor

the sweet honey of peace.

We ended the day with a short hike to Black Balsam where we were rewarded with indescribable views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

(We are still unable to post pictures. We wish we could share some visuals with you now, and we will as soon as we can!)

Blue Ridge

“A Day in the Clouds”

Sunrise over the Black Mountains (named for the abundance of dark-colored spruce and fir trees at higher elevations).

Sunrise over the Black Mountains (named for the abundance of dark-colored spruce and fir trees at higher elevations).

Beep, beep, beep! 4:45am comes early, but when we’re chasing a sunrise, nothing can stop us. We drove to Ridge Junction Overlook, through the fog and clouds, and watched the sunrise. Since we’re lifelong learners, we had to explore the surrounding wildflowers, too.

Museum ornithologist John Gerwin holds a banded Hermit Thrush while the group learns how to determine the age based on the feathers and body conditions of the bird.

Museum ornithologist John Gerwin holds a banded Hermit Thrush while the group learns how to determine the age based on the feathers and body conditions of the bird.

Next, we joined John Gerwin, NCMNS ornithologist, to catch songbirds in mist nets. He taught us about banding, tracking migration patterns, and releasing birds. We have all improved our bird watching and listening skills.

John Gerwin releasing a bird.

John Gerwin releasing a bird.

The adventure continued as we traveled farther into the clouds. Our mission was to summit Mt. Mitchell, highest peak east of the Mississippi River. This alpine ecosystem greeted us with Frasier firs, wind, cold, and lots of rain. This didn’t stop us from exploring the surrounding forest and discovering some salamander, lichen, and spider species that were new to us

Eryn teaches us about her expert topic, the Fraser Fir Tree, and their importance to the unique, high elevation spruce-fir forests found at Mount Mitchell.

Eryn teaches us about her expert topic, the Fraser Fir Tree, and their importance to the unique, high elevation spruce-fir forests found at Mount Mitchell.

After we returned to the van and peeled off all of our wet layers, we spent the afternoon choosing our own adventure. We visited Setrock Creek Falls, searching for salamanders and crawfish. Fun fact: crawfish carry their young on their underside even after they’ve hatched. South Toe River provided us with very cold water for snorkeling and trout-watching. While drying his mist nets, John caught a chipping sparrow, providing us more opportunity to learn about this species. An evening campfire gave us additional time to reflect and enjoy each other’s company. As we approach the halfway point, we all agree that this has been an excellent experience, and we cannot wait to see what’s on the other side.

Blue Ridge

“A Day of Surprises”

Surprising our fearless leaders, the group was ready to go about 30 minutes early this morning. Leaving Stone Mountain, we traveled down the Blue Ridge Parkway stopping to observe the natural beauty along the way.

Ranger Jonathan Bennett regales us with the story of how Linville Gorge got its name.

Ranger Jonathan Bennett regales us with the story of how Linville Gorge got its name.

At the Linville River we ate lunch (and fabulous desserts). Ranger Jonathan Bennett entertained us with a rousing history of the Parkway, and more specifically the Linville area itself. Of great note were his sound effects (particularly the clip clop of horse hooves).

A spectacular group of NC Educators overlooking Table Rock from Wiseman’s View in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.

A spectacular group of NC Educators overlooking Table Rock from Wiseman’s View in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.

We then journeyed up to Wiseman’s View and took in the breathtaking view of Linville Gorge. Words cannot express this view, go see for yourself! Watch your car’s suspension though.

At the North Carolina Museum of Minerals we met up with Ranger Bennett again, where he showed us a recently deceased rattlesnake specimen.

Dead on the road Timber Rattlesnake, collected by the National Park Service to be used for genetic studies.

Dead on the road Timber Rattlesnake, collected by the National Park Service to be used for genetic studies.

We finished the day at Briar Bottom campground where we set up camp. While dinner was prepared, John Gerwin (fantastic ornithologist) prepared us for our birdwatching adventure tomorrow.

Early to bed, early morning tomorrow!

Blue Ridge

“The Highs and Lows of Stone Mountain”

We completed a 3.3 mile hike on the Stone Mountain Loop trail after breakfast. Along the way we found an brightly colored red eft, the terrestrial juvenile phase of the Eastern Red-Spotted Newt, on the trail. We determined it was a salamander rather than a lizard because it had no scales and no claws. FYI, all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. Newts are toxic to fish and small mammals. Adult males have something called nuptial pads, which are raised rough ridges, on the inside of their hind feet during the breeding season to help hang onto the females.

Bright red salamander with sand stuck to its back held in an open palm. The salamander is about 3 inches long from nose to tail tip.

Eastern newt in the red eft life stage encountered in Stone Mountain State Park

We snacked on the summit of Stone Mountain while we observed the minerals in the igneous rock and discussed the processes that we thought were responsible for the creation of the granite dome, including continental collisions, magma cooling underground millions of years ago, and tons of weathering and erosion.

12 adults standing or sitting in two rows on top of a rock face of Stone Mountain (North Carolina) overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Blue Ridge Institute poses atop Stone Mountain, NC.

After lunch, we met with TR Russ, one of the eight non-game fisheries biologists in the state that work for the NC Wildlife Commission. He passed around a stone roller fish preserved in alcohol, as well as a paddle fish, just 2 of the more than 200 species he works with!

Using a backpack electroshocker and a swine net, we collected (for observation only) a handful of species of fish, along with a few crayfish/crawdads, 2 with a leeches attached to them. TR found a horsehair worm, the stuff of nightmares, a parasite that burrows into a cricket’s body, driving it crazy and drawing it to the river, where it then EXPLODES out of the poor creature to continue its life cycle in the water.

We then went snorkeling to observe the same fish within their natural habitat. The heat and humidity was bad today, so the cold river water felt refreshing.

Two people pose for a selfie holding up a small fish that is mostly a light brown color.

A quick selfie with Lenae, Becqui, and a striped jumprock fish while exploring the Roaring River at Stone Mountain State Park

This was followed by a visit to the bottom of Stone Mountain Falls, a 200-foot tall cascade. The problem is, to get to the Falls you have to climb down a flight of 300 stairs…and back up again.

We also learned to use the Seek app, which is a very resourceful tool in identifying species of flora and fauna. And experts within our group presented on topics of the hemlock wooly adelgid, the southern flying squirrel, and the raven. We received a bookmark full of adelgid information, played a group game featuring flying squirrel facts, and created a make and take modeled after the amazing raven.

All this in our first day! And what a day it was.

Blue Ridge

“We Are From”

Foreground is a pool of clear water. Rocks slope upward from the pool towards a cascading waterfall. Pine trees and rhododendron frame the falls and pools on either side.

Widow’s Creek Falls at Stone Mountain State Park

We are from daypacks.
From Crazy Creek chairs and Nalgene bottles.
We are from North Carolina (mountain, piedmont, and coastal plain).
We are are from white pines, five needles per fascicle, open cones, fast-growing.
We are from group norms and trip goals.
From Melissa, Megan, and Chris.
We are from lifelong learners and explorers.
From “choose your own adventure” and “leave no trace.”
We are from Mother Nature and unplug, recharge.
We are from schools and museums.
Trail mix and Clif bars.
From eating our first meal in a bag to Chris showing us how to slide down Widow’s Creek Falls.
From using our five senses to notice, wonder, and reminisce.
Nature journals, data collection, cell phone pictures, and group stories.
We are from different backgrounds and experiences, but we all share the desire to inspire new explorers.

Foreground is a pool of clear water. Rocks slope upward from the pool creating a natural waterslide. A person is standing at the top of the slide, and another person is sliding down. Pine trees and rhododendron frame a waterfall and pools on either side.

Waterfall sliding at Widow’s Creek Falls at Stone Mountain State Park, NC

Looking down into a plastic zip top bag containing a freeze-dried meal that has been rehydrated. A spoon is sticking out of the bag towards the camera.

First meal of the trip, rehydrated meals in a bag!

Blue Ridge

“Seeing the World Through Each Others’ Eyes”

“It’s been a rough year for all of us – teachers, students, and parents alike. Some of us fit in all 3 categories. Some of us have endured personal trauma or have been close to colleagues who have. The loss is overwhelming, and I’m not solely talking about loss of life. I’m speaking of a deeper loss we can all share. A loss of freedom and exploration; a loss of continuity and tradition; a loss of social interactions and mental wellness; a loss of smiles, hugs and high fives; a loss of normalcy. Yet throughout this loss, I feel we have gained something else. I have been amazed at how we have united to support each other emotionally and spiritually. I have seen everlasting friendships formed through synchronous trials and tribulations. We’ve all learned quite a bit more about technology than we thought we’d ever learn in our lifetimes. We’ve learned our own strengths and weaknesses, and how to survive on both.

This “adventure” has reminded me that there is more to these kids than reading fluency and math strategies. We were suddenly forced by the universe to adapt to our new surroundings without warning, and what we discovered while in this new phase was ugly, yet simultaneously wondrous. We got an 18-month long sneak peek into our kids’ lives, inside their homes, their personal relationships – we got to see the world through their eyes

One thing that remained consistent throughout virtual or face-to-face teaching was spreading my love of hiking and the outdoors to my kids, even to students in other classes. I would share my adventures on the trails (along with photos) with my students, especially if it was something really cool (like rappelling off of an 80’ cliff, ziplining through the trees, or summiting a peak alone at sunset) and explain to them jubilantly how I was conquering my fear of heights while immersing myself in nature. It lit up their faces. I want to continue to bring that joy and wonder to my students, to instill that curiosity, to see the good in the world – through my eyes.

When school ended in May and we said our goodbyes, all I could think about was the one thing that got me through this school year – anticipating the Educators of Excellence Institute in the Blue Ridge Mountains this summer. Learning more about my passion in an environment that has such meaning to me caused me to spend months preparing for this unique experience with fewer than a dozen other teachers from around the state. This, to me, is not work. This is my “play.” This is how I bring nature into the classroom, how I show them to explore. This is how we make connections and see the world through each others’ eyes.”

~Becqui Masters, First Grade Teacher, Central Elementary School, Pasquotank County


Lenae Scafidi, Science teacher at Iredell High School in Iredell County, has also been eagerly anticipating her Educators of Excellence Institute by exploring with her family along the Blue Ridge Parkway. She heard we’d be looking for hellbenders and hiking, so she got a head start!

A masked teacher watches a hellbender in a tank

“Hunting” hellbenders at the Western NC Nature Center


Teacher and her son hike in a mountain forest along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Lenae had the opportunity to hike with her son earlier this summer along the Blue Ridge Parkway.


Blue Ridge

“Trees and Waterfalls”

Our morning started with a delicious breakfast prepared by our hardworking leaders!

We traveled to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and met Gary Kauffman, a botanist with the US Forest Service. He led us around the trail and into the old growth forest. Along the way, he shared a wealth of information with us about all the plants inhabiting the forest. Our two plus miles took us a few hours as we learned about all the greenery and such along the trail. He shared his passion and his poetry with the group. We were all in awe over the huge Tulip Poplar Trees which are estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old. It was an amazing feeling to be standing among such history and consider what all has happened in the world during the lifetime of these giants.

Man holding plant in forest

Learning about liverworts from botanist Gary Kauffman.

Group of people circling large trees with their arms

How many teacher armspans in circumference is a 500-year-old tree?

After lunch, we hiked to Yellow Creek Falls. The trail took us along the creek and we enjoyed the sounds and sights of the meandering water. As we approached the top, we all took in the beauty of the rushing water of the first large fall. We sat and spent time reflecting on the week as it comes to a close. We were challenged to a “writing marathon” while we sat by the waterfall. We each took at least a half hour to free write with intentionality. In addition to writing, we had the opportunity to spend time in the water and sitting on the rocks chatting about our Blue Ridge experience.

Three people sitting at the edge of a pool at the base of a waterfall.

Wendy, Amy and Stephanie chatting by Yellow Creek Falls.

We returned to the yurts and ate dinner together. We spent the rest of the evening and into the night sharing with each other the highlights of our trip. We enjoyed our last night together and appreciated the time to build on relationships that have formed during this unique experience. We do not want to lose the connections with one another as we go back to “normal life” tomorrow. The changes that we intend to make both personally and professionally will be strengthened by our networking with one another. A campfire and stargazing on this beautiful night capped off the whole trip. It is bittersweet — we don’t want to leave, but we are ready to go home.

Blue Ridge

“The Mother Town”

It was a bittersweet morning as we packed up our tents for the last time and left the Mount Pisgah Campground bound for our next destination, Cherokee, NC. We traveled the last leg of the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highest point at 6053 feet and then made a brief stop to check out some stunning views through the clouds at Waterrock Knob. The trail to the top was steep but our determination was strong, and after a challenging hike we were rewarded by the sweat on our brows and a breathtaking view!

Group in front of BRP sign

Chris took a group picture at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s southern terminus.

Upon arriving in Cherokee, we ate a quick picnic lunch by the river and prepared for our guest speaker, Freeman Owle. Freeman Owle is an Elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. An educator himself, he shared his story of growing up and being systematically and forcefully stripped of his culture and how that impacts his work with children of the Cherokee tribe today. He educated, inspired, and left us with powerful words reminding us of our impact. These words will surely stick with us when we return home: “There is no job that is greater than what you do. No job is more important than what you do.”

Group sitting on benches

Cherokee Elder Freeman Owle talks with us about growing up and becoming a teacher himself

After our experience one of our educators, Talicia Smith, was inspired to write a poem detailing the impact of our day saying:

“I stood where the mother town was.
Stories of family, faith and love
Stories of struggle, the war of men
Lesson we are still learning from them

I stood where the mother town was
Where trees were healing for the soul
The soil underneath my feet
Beaten by dances moving for peace

I stood where the mother town was
Where rivers flowed with ease
And elks track through the leaves
I stood where the mother town was.”

Yurt in front of mountains and clouds.

View from our final home – the Sky Ridge yurt village.

Finally we headed for the premier lodging of our trip, our luxurious yurts! After a week in the damp heat of the Appalachian mountain region, it was a very welcome treat! We have learned and experienced so much together and we ended the night with a heart-to-heart, tear-filled reflection of our day. Even though tomorrow is our last day, this experience will follow us into our classroom and beyond.

Blue Ridge

“Adventure is Meaningful”

Last night brought boisterous winds and heavy rain, however we awoke to a new day. At 4:30 am we awoke, piled into the vans and began our trek up slippery rocks and muddy trails to the top of Black Balsam. The mist of the morning hid the rays of the sun but didn’t dampen our spirits. On top of the trail we experienced strong winds, strong coffee and created even stronger bonds with the team. Although we did not experience the sunrise we anticipated it was still an awesome way to begin the day.

Silhouetted person in front of dawn light.

Wendy catching one of the few glimpses of sunrise color from Black Balsam knob.

We left Black Balsam Trail and headed to Skinny Dip Falls where we spent time with our nature journals enjoying creative reflection. The beauty of the area and sounds of the falls behind us were meditative.

People on wooden bridge over waterfall

Group on bridge at Skinny Dip Falls

The day’s highlight was spent on the river learning about and looking for our most primitive salamander. With the help of a local biologist and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, we located the elusive Hellbender. This was an exhilarating experience, as we waded and swam through cold water, using snorkels and bathyscopes to see a Hellbender in its natural habitat.

Group of people in wetsuits and warm clothes next to a river

The group preparing to get into the cold water to look for Hellbenders!

The day ended with ice cream from the local ice cream parlor before heading back to camp.

Group eating ice cream under a brightly colored umbrella.

Ice cream at Dolly’s was a great finish to the day.