A Walk to the Mill Pond

Me at the rock wall at the Mill Pond, circa 1976

Me at the rock wall at the Mill Pond, circa 1976

A couple of nights ago, I dreamt of the Mill Pond on Duncan Creek off Fleming Mill Road.  I can close my eyes and smell the water, silty and fishy and fresh.  Nothing quite smells like creek water in the Piedmont.

It was some 20 minutes’ walk from the house, just off the frontage road along the interstate highway.  Down the hill we sledded on when it snowed or iced and maybe a quarter mile beyond was a dirt road on the left snaking back into the hardwoods.

The mouth of the dirt road was piled with garbage—an illegal dump consisting of old television sets, bed springs and bottles, dismembered baby dolls and beer cans aplenty.  It was where old sofas and ruined carpets and broken kitchen appliances came to die.

It also reeked of death.  There was usually a decomposing dog carcass or two, sometimes on the bare ground, sometimes wrapped in a sheet or ripped plastic bags.  It is where I became familiar with the process of decomposition as I tried to hold my breath until I passed.

Once past the putrid smell of garbage, the road was picturesque.  It wound through a gorgeous and open oak-hickory forest punctuated by holly trees, dogwoods and the occasional beech.  Where it dead-ended you could hear the roar of water rushing over the shoals, which were a short walk through the trees.

As you came upon the shoals, a fairly level slab of rock stretched ahead and to the left, where it met with the creek. Closer and to the right, though, sat twin boulders, half-overlapping with a waterfall rushing between them.  During the spring when the suckers ran they jumped like salmon in Alaska trying to get past this little waterfall.  Water from here sluiced to the right some ten to twenty yards into a shaded and shallow fishing hole.

If you followed the linear level slab to the creek, you could fully appreciate the shoals.  To the left the creek was still and deep, but at this pinch-point, it met the rocky shoals and roared to the right across a fairly steep drop-off into the deep green swimming hole/fishing hole, a combination waterfall and water slide.  The poor man’s water park.

Across the creek from where the still deep water met the shoals was a rock wall, and all around the creek were earthen berms that must have sluiced water down to the mill when it was operational.  Since no wooden structures remained, I can only imagine that the grist mill itself must have sat below the swimming hole somewhere near the right bank. When we first went there, the millstone sat atop a rock wall over a deep drop off.  Sadly, on a later visit, the millstone was cracked in the bottom of the pit, a victim of vandalism.

This place was pure magic and contained an abundance of micro-habitats up and down the creek, likely forming the collective Holmesfeel for conservation of all things nature.

Upstream the water was narrow, deep and still and there was an oxbow or two alongside the main channel.  It was floodplain habitat.  In winter with a good pair of rubber boots, you could wade and find the gelatinous egg masses of salamanders and frogs.  And on rabbit hunts, you might shoot a cottontail and a swamp rabbit if you were lucky.  An occasional woodcock would flush spinning like a whirligig.

On the left bank uphill from the shoals and swimming hole, there was a tiny almost- xeric habitat where sun broke through the canopy to crumbly rock, prickly pear and lichens in one spot, and club moss under shade not too far away.

Further downstream the woods were wide and open to a bend in the creek where a hill piled with boulders on the right bank gave the feel that you were in the mountains.  You could sit up on the hill there with your BB gun overlooking the creek and pretend you were waiting in ambush for some old-time movie bad guys to come along.

Within eyesight on the same bank, the terrain flattened into a cane thicket. You could almost get lost in it bushwhacking your way through the cane and green brier, and most adults would caution you to avoid going in because you might get “that bird disease.”

Back in those days, there was little concept of private woodlands and posted land.  Unoccupied woods and fields were open to anyone to ramble, fish and hunt.  The Mill Pond was a lot like other sets of shoals in the country—a popular place to hang out and picnic or even camp.  Teenagers went to places like this to do their beer drinking and necking.  And families with small children often made such locations a Sunday afternoon outing.

As people are wont to do, someone bought it and built a house on it.  You cannot go there now, and I am certain I would not want to.  It is still the same in my memory.

I grew up wild here—swimming, fishing, hunting.  Seeing, touching, smelling.  Put a watermelon in the falls and let it get cooled by the water before cracking it open on the rocks.

Time spent at the Mill Pond, I am sure, is time that will not be deducted from my life.

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Jewels of the Carolina Winter

Ambystoma maculatum

Two spotted salamanders dancing cheek-to-cheek

It is March, cold and muddy, just like a South Carolina upstate winter should be.  Our pickup slips and slides in the mud along the river of muscadines but Joey Holmes finesses the two track and we don’t have to engage the four-wheel drive.  There’s a hint of mystery and excitement.   Joey’s wife’s cousin Leon Cook is here from Maine, and we are on our way to find some spotted salamanders!

Chances are you could live your life in the upstate of South Carolina and never see the official State Amphibian, Ambystoma maculatum.  These hidden jewels spend their lives underground in wooded areas.  This is oversimplifying things a bit.  They have rather specific habitat requirements.

Vernal pool that hosts breeding salmanders

This inauspicious upstate pasture hosts the party of the year for the official State Amphibian of South Carolina.

We run a gauntlet of cattle gates with Leon as gate man before Joey parks the truck beside some open flooded timber.  Quickly Leon and I gather binoculars, cameras, tripods and cell phones while Joey arms himself with a potato rake for turning over muddy logs.  He strides towards the first log with purpose while I whisper to Leon that Joey is like a salamander savant.

“He knows which logs they are under and he turns them in a specific order.”

We work through this temporary wetland with Joey turning over semi-rotten logs adjacent to the water while Leon and I wait for the salamanders.  We are not rewarded instantly, but have to work for our prizes.

Winter is the salamander’s mating season.  The spotteds work their way down from the forest and hide under logs near temporary wetlands called vernal pools.  These pools are filled with winter rainwater now but dry up during the summer, so they contain no fish.  This makes them ideal for the salamanders, because there are no fish to eat their jellylike egg clutches.

Abystoma maculatum pair

Freshly baptized by Joey, these two spotted salamanders pose for their glamour shots

During this time, the salamanders can be found under logs as they wait to deposit their eggs in the nearby water.  Once mating season is over, the spotteds will retreat to their underground home in the forest, where they eat worms and insect larvae.

Ambystoma maculatum, cranium

You can see my self-portrait reflected in this salamander's shiny head.

Joey has herped these vernal pools for well over twenty years.  We are soon rewarded with quite a find—two robust and beautiful spotted salamanders practically cheek-to-cheek under one log.  Leon and I photograph them in situ, experimenting with flash and camera settings, before Joey takes the salamanders out and places them on top of the log for more photos.

Their little bodies, about seven inches long, feel as cold as ice and surprisingly dry, with bits of rotten wood and dirt sticking to them.  The ambient temperature is about 42 degrees.  Joey takes a bottle of water from his pocket that is easily twenty degrees warmer than the salamanders and washes them off for the photos.  In spite of its relative warmth, you can practically see the spots gasp as he douses them.

Ambystoma maculatum

Plump female in situ

We find a total of four spotted salamanders.  One is ridiculously fat, and Joey says, “This fat girl hasn’t let go of her eggs yet.”

Leon and I remark on the texture and temperature of the spotteds.  They are cool and dry, and with their fabulous spots, they seem like jewels of the Carolina winter.  I can’t imagine why everybody isn’t out wearing rubber boots, looking for them with a potato rake.

“Hmmrhh,” Joey rumbles.  “Some herpetologists call them gummi lizards.”

I can’t help but laugh at this.  They do look and feel like gummi bears.

Joey keeps careful records, and knows the salamanders by their spot pattern.  They have a dark brown to black background color with two lines of offset yellow spots along their top line.  Near the head, the spots may be orange or almost red.  I marvel that he can tell them apart by their patterns.  But in real life, he has a little help from his meticulous record-keeping.  He takes photos he will later compare to past photos to see if he has ever found these individuals before.

Ambystoma maculatum

"Gummi lizard"

Spotted salamanders share this wetland with a similar species, marbled salamanders.  I tell him I hope we can find some marbled and he gestures with the potato rake and says, “They’re more likely to be over there.”

“Why?” asks Leon.  “Do they have a different habitat that the spotted?”

Ambystoma maculaum

A rare chance to hold one of these treasures

“No,” Joey concedes.  “They seem to be the same.  But they like it over there, perhaps for reasons known only to themselves.”

We don’t locate any marbled salamanders on this trip, but all four of these spotted gems turn out to be new-to-Joey.  Fair enough for a cold March 1 in the Upstate, herping in winter.


All salamanders are documented and released unharmed after their glamour shots.

Upon comparing photos of these salamanders, Joey says he has found eleven new-to-him spotted salamanders this season.

I will add these individuals to my list of “Spottings” (no pun intended) on my www.projectnoah.org.

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