A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

“Those are some old dudes,” Mark Johns says. Beside him, on a trailside overlook, I grin. I’m not sure that old dudes is, technically, a scientific term, but as I

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

“Those are some old dudes,” Mark Johns says. Beside him, on a trailside overlook, I grin. I’m not sure that old dudes is, technically, a scientific term, but as I

Keeper of the Hemlocks

“Those are some old dudes,” Mark Johns says. Beside him, on a trailside overlook, I grin. I’m not sure that old dudes is, technically, a scientific term, but as I look down from a timbered escarpment at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary, I see a canopy of wind-twisted trees. Among them are eastern hemlocks — hemlocks where there shouldn’t be hemlocks. Hemlocks that took root hundreds of years ago.

Old dudes. That describes these trees pretty much exactly. It’s a classic Mark Johns line.

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve supervisor Mark Johns. photograph by Charles Harris

This is Mark’s 30th year at Hemlock Bluffs, and his ninth as the preserve’s supervisor. “The top dog,” he says wryly. Although there’s only one other full-time employee, so he’s not sure how “top” that really makes him.

But I am. For much of my own career, he’s served as a kind of walking encyclopedia for me, a natural-history guru to whom I’ve turned countless times for insight. I’m sure I’ve driven him nuts over the years, pestering him with out-of-the-blue questions that have come up during writing assignments.

Hey, Mark, does the slimy salamander breed in the spring like the spotted salamander or in the fall like the marbled salamander?

Hey, Mark, which bird makes that sound like you dropped a Ping-Pong ball on the floor?

Hey, Mark, did I just see a nutria in Nash County? I didn’t know they came this far west.

In the days before the Internet, he was my Google. But he was far more than a resource. It was Mark who showed me the salamanders that migrate overland during the first warm rains of spring. It was Mark who turned me on to the world of birdsong, and how learning to identify a few dozen bird calls would make me appreciate a North Carolina sunrise all the more. And I’m hardly alone. Mark has revealed wildlife mysteries from mountains to coast — and he’s brought legions of fans along for the ride.

Hemlock trees aren’t rare in North Carolina. They’re fairly common in the mountains and foothills. But in Wake County, which may be closer to the nearest high-tide line than to a Blue Ridge view, “they are crazy rare,” Mark says. The hemlocks along the bluffs above Swift Creek in Cary are a holdover from the last Ice Age, when northern tree species cloaked this part of North Carolina. As the weather warmed and glaciers receded, hemlocks hung on in the cool breezes and deep shade of the tall, north-facing bluffs. Today, about 250 hemlocks are scattered in groves in the 140-acre park, which itself hangs on in the midst of intense development.

“Our mission here is very different from what you might expect of an urban park,” Mark says. “We are here to protect the plant and animal communities of this particular ecosystem.” At Hemlock Bluffs, visitors can’t stray from the marked trails or collect so much as a single leaf. “To be honest,” he says, “it’s not a park designed for humans.”

Which makes it keenly suited for certain humans: those who seek to understand how our lives and the lives of wildlife — those “other nations,” in the words of the writer Henry Beston — are intertwined.

As we follow the trail, Mark points out forest features that one might not see at other city parks. Where it’s safe, dead trees — called “snags” — are left in place. They provide nesting cavities for birds and small mammals, perches for raptors, and cover for reptiles. He rolls over what appears to be a rotting log and points out the straight chainsaw cuts. The log was actually handcrafted, with an interior notch cut to form a shelter for salamanders and small mammals. “There aren’t a lot of places that go to this kind of trouble to make the local environment a bit friendlier for critters,” he says.

Tours of the park offer a kid’s-eye view of hemlocks and more. A guide might turn over a log to reveal ants, beetles, or even salamanders underneath. photograph by Charles Harris

Professors and students from NC State, Duke, UNC Greensboro, Wake Tech, and UNC Asheville have conducted research at Hemlock Bluffs. Efforts to save the hemlocks from an invasive insect continue nonstop. Mark monitors and surveys reptile, amphibian, and bird species for both the preserve and Audubon North Carolina. It’s a fairly small place, but the knowledge base of Hemlock Bluffs’ natural history is extraordinarily deep.

And Mark is no stranger to research. He was on the adjunct faculty at NCSU for 20 years. But early on, he figured out that what he really loves is getting the general public to care about the natural world. “The people who live in the neighborhoods around here are the ones voting and showing up at city hall meetings,” he says. “That’s who we have to reach and connect to the world around them.”

And that’s where he’s planted his flag for three decades. He’s led thousands of classes and field trips, and guided untold thousands of people to places where they can encounter wild things — even if they can still hear traffic on a nearby road. Mark is a bit of a throwback. I don’t think he’d mind me saying so. In an era when many avenues for exploring nature tend toward the overhyped and exploitative — think Shark Week and River Monsters — his approach to the wonders of our world is more personal.

“People have to care,” he says. “And that has to start somewhere.”

And, most often, with someone. Don’t ever forget that, my friend. Someone has to shine the light.

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve
2616 Kildaire Farm Road
Cary, NC 27518
(919) 387-5980

This story was published on Mar 27, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.