INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINA SORENSEN HESTER, PARK MANAGER OF HARRIS LAKE COUNTY PARK
Christina Sorensen Hester is currently finishing her Masters of Parks, Recreation, Tourism and Sports Management at NC State University. She worked at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve (Cary) and later as Assistant Park Manager of Programs at Lake Crabtree County Park (Morrisville). In 2002 she became the Assistant Park Manager of Operations and Programs at Harris Lake County Park, and became its Park Manager in 2008. Today, she manages Harris Lake County Park, part of the American Tobacco Trail and Feltonville Community Park.
Interviewing today is Blake Johnson, the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake Dam where he specializes in in community outreach and engagement. He began working with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Falls Lake in 2015 and graduated from NCSU with a major in Environmental Technology & Management and minors in Environmental Chemistry & Toxicology and Soil Science.
Christina, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today. As you know, Harris Lake County Park is not far from our offices at Jordan Lake which makes it an easy ride for me. There is so much to do and see there, so can you tell us in your own words why this is a favorite for families across the region?
Thank you, Blake and I appreciate your time as well for this opportunity to tell everyone about us. We often like to say that Harris Lake County Park is really a “Destination for the Day”.
There is something here for everyone to enjoy. They can have a picnic, hike our 5-mile peninsula trail, fish off the pier, and mountain bike on our single-track trail system. Others may play disc golf, launch a kayak from our cartop boat launch or just relax with a chair or blanket on the open playfield.
Being that Harris Lake is a man-made lake, can we talk about the origins and history of the Park?
This is really another good question and a good topic to visit as we like to honor the land and the people that inhabited it before it become a park.
First of all, we acknowledge the original stewards of these lands and watersheds of Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather, including most notably the Tuscarora, Lumbee, and Catawba People.
In more recent times, long before these 680 acres was a park- it was the homesite for many families and agriculture was a way of life for them. They raised livestock and grew things like cotton, tobacco, peanuts, and sweet potatoes.
Sugar caning was a popular activity to produce molasses. You can still see remnants of their home sites along some of our trails. You may recognize some of the family names that are often connected to the local area: Womble, Holleman, Smith and Stevens.
How about their sense of “community”? Did they depend on each other?
Historical records tell us that there was really a strong community atmosphere. Families would often share food and festivities- one family would slaughter a cow and all would be fed by it. Ice cream socials were a fun gathering time. There was a sugar cane mill that the families worked together. The women were very much in charge of the house choirs while the men worked the fields.
You might find this interesting – The Wombles were one of the families who lived here at that time. They did not support smoking and never grew tobacco. Their children would all receive a gold watch when they turned 18 if they refrained from smoking.
What about the time that these families were forced to leave their farms and homes?
I know it was not easy to move off of this property. Some family members of those that were displaced live nearby and some of them still stop by to visit and reminisce.
Mr. Wallace Womble was a great resource and park friend for us and helped us design the Womble history trail that is now available via mobile devices to learn about their life on the farm. There is an excellent Womble History Mobile Tour which you can view here
He was also instrumental in aiding an Eagle Scout project with rebuilding a replica of the Wash House structure that was once on the property. After this amazing project was complete, Mr. Womble exclaimed that this version was built better than the original! You can see the Wash House dedication YouTube video here.
So, we really have not talked about why all these families had to leave their farms, homes, and land. What can you tell us?
In 1985, Carolina Power and Light Company (now Duke Energy) purchased the land to flood part of it and then build four units for the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. However, only one of the four units was built and not all the land needed to be flooded to support the planned structure.
Our Lake was created to provide water that is pumped into the plant for cooling. And of course much of the purchased property, including Harris Lake, is an important community resource, providing outdoor recreation areas for the public and wildlife habitats.
The lake is used for boating, and fishing. Almost 680 acres of land around the plant are leased to Harris Lake County Park, 1,200 acres are designated as a forestry research tract, and more than 14,000 acres are part of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission Game Lands Program.
If another reactor is to be built, we could lose some Park acreage, but not the entire park. Before the Progress Energy and Duke Power merger, there was a proposal of an additional reactor and what that would mean to the park and the surrounding infrastructure. The park was tentatively going to be decreased by half and facilities would have been adjusted to provide the same services but relocated due to lake level rise.
What would happen if Duke Energy decides to ever build another reactor here?
It is good to know that if a new reactor is ever built, that Harris Lake County Park would still exist for recreational purposes. There is also a designated area for Longleaf Pine Restoration area that you actively manage with prescribed fires. Anything you want to share?
We have a 60 acre Longleaf Forest here and we attempt to burn at least 30 acres annually, knowing that weather conditions and burn window may not allow it to happen yearly. The goal is to burn a section at least every 3 years to keep competitive vegetation in balance and aid in soil nutrients for the germination and growth of Longleaf seeds/seedlings.
We recently burned 30 acres in late February 2023 and as you walk along the Peninsula trail you will come into sections of the Longleaf area and can view all the forest management work that has been done in that section of the park.
There is a lot of history about the Longleaf Pines in North Carolina, probably too much to discuss here. But if you are interested in learning more, there is an interesting story at the end of the interview where you can learn much more.
The Peninsula Trail is probably my favorite trail in the entirety of the Triangle. It is so well maintained and offers such quiet and still views. It’s actually what I aspire to make the trails at my part of Jordan Lake like. Anyway, what would you recommend for a family with young children on their first visit to the Park?
There is so much here, that is it difficult to say. But they could set up on one of the picnic tables near our playground, so that the children could play while they are enjoying their lunch or snack. And there are restrooms located nearby for easy access from the playground.
This is also the same area to access our open playfield, so they can bring a football, soccer ball or fly a kite. Within a short walk you can get some great views of the lake by the shoreline or on our floating fishing pier that extends a short bit out into the water.
Can you tell us some things about your hiking and biking trails?
Our mountain bike trails are a very popular park attraction. We have a little over 10 miles of trail, which include a Flow Trail and an intermediate skills area. We manage them as sustainable trails in the fact that they do close due to wet weather conditions to help maintain trail integrity. We work with local groups like the Triangle Off Road Cyclists (TORC) to help maintain and provide program opportunities within the trail system.
So I definitely know what the Peninsula Trail is like, but can you give a good description for the readers?
Our Peninsula trail takes hikers on a journey through different habitats. Along this 5-mile hike, visitors come across both lake and pond habitats as well as explore the Loblolly and Longleaf pine forests. There are multiple loops to give visitors a variety of hiking options.
And you also have a disc golf course, correct?
Yes, our popular Buckhorn Disc Golf Course is a 19-basket course
that starts at Basket "0" and ends at "18". A practice basket is near
the parking area and then it is a quick walk to the first tee pad.
The course traverses through the woods and offers a variety of
water features along with tee pads set for beginners to experts.
Capital Area Disc League (CADL) partners with park staff to maintain
the course for public use and tournament play.
They host over 6 tournaments a year and are true advocates of the sport.
What about the fishing pier?
Actually, this is only a little way from the playground and some of the picnic tables which makes it an ideal place to visit for a first-time outing here. Even if one does not fish, there are some great views of the lake and some opportunities to see water birds as well. Herons can also be seen hunting for fish along the shoreline and birds of prey like eagles and osprey can be seen flying from above.
Can children fish for free there?
Good question - Youth under age 16 do not need a fishing license. NC fishing regulations are always in effect at the lake. We also have a nice pond a short drive away that we stock with Channel Catfish between the months of March through October and is an ideal fishing spot for families as well. Within the last few years, that same fishing pond is stocked with trout starting in December.
What about fishing opportunities in general?
The big lake (Harris Lake) is a very popular for bass fishing, but our focus is our ponds since the lake is managed by Wildlife Resource Commission and the park ponds are managed by our park staff.
The pond I previously mentioned is typically stocked with Channel Catfish from March-October. In December, it is often stocked with trout- rainbow, brown and brook. depending on how well the fish nurseries are managing each year. There is a 6 a day catch fish limit per person for the catfish and 7 for the trout.
The other ponds on the property have a mixture of bream (bluegill), bass, crappy, catfish, and carp.
Yes I’m not a fisherman myself but I do quite enjoy kayaking. Harris Lake stays pretty still so it’s great for a calm and relaxing kayak which I’ve done a number of times. There’s also a very unique pond near your picnic shelter across from the playground. It is interesting that this pond is often covered by delicate, green-colored aquatic plants. Can you tell the readers more about the pond and the plant that floats atop it?
This would be our Cypress Pond which is a popular pond for our amphibians and reptiles but does not sustain a fish population due to low dissolved oxygen level. The oxygen level is affected by the decomposing Duckweed that settles on the bottom of the pond. Duckweed is a floating aquatic plant which has been in that pond for years. Many aquatic insects find shelter amongst the Duckweed. Staff have deemed this the amphibian/reptile pond because they can thrive due to the absence of fish predators.
You mentioned a stocked pond earlier, what can you tell us about other ponds at the park?
Actually, we have 13 farm ponds here that were built by the landowners before the property became a park. These provided irrigation for crops like soybean and cotton and provided water for livestock. Today these ponds are used for fishing and aquatic exploration through our public programs.
There’s no shortage of boaters in the area. What can you tell us about boating at the lake? How many ramps are there and are there any limitations?
There are two boat ramps that are managed by the Wildlife Resource Commission on the lake, and you can learn more by going here.
Within the park, we have a cartop boat launch where visitors can unload and walk a short distance to access the lake.
In our master park plan, we will be enhancing this area to allow for closer access to the lake for easier unloading/loading opportunities. The renovation will be a few years, but it is in the works!
What about the lake water that is used in the reactor? How is this used and what is the effect on the lake?
These are excellent questions.
And as there is an excellent on-line article that explains all of this and much more, I would rather refer those that are interested in it. You can see the article in its entirety by going here.
I understand you were very excited when a Fox Squirrel was sighted in the Park.
Yes we are - this is certainly a rare find in this area and a first for Harris Lake County park.
Fox squirrels are on the endangered wildlife “Watch List” and there are very few records of sightings in Wake County. Park staff and visitors have spotted it in different locations, leading us to believe that there may be two residing on the property.
We were excited to find it here as they prefer open, mature Longleaf Pine stands. They spend most of their time on the ground, and their large size makes them especially suited for the huge Longleaf Pinecones. The squirrels spotted here area mostly black with a white stripe on the nose. They have been seen foraging on the ground and they quickly move high into the trees to gain safety.
What about wildlife sightings?
Visitors and park staff alike get excited to see wildlife anytime in the park and some wildlife unique and dear to our site are the wood ducks and red efts. I also have to mention that appreciation of even our frequently seen white tailed deer is still a sight to observe as they forage in field and forest.
Wood ducks and red efts are two animals that can be seen here frequently. Wood ducks visit the lake and ponds and nest in our wood duck boxes.
Red efts are the terrestrial form of the eastern newt and can be seen crossing the main park road on cool, rainy days. While their numbers have steadily grown, their crossing our Park roads often results in their fatality.
Any other rare finds one might see here?
Of course our Longleaf Pines fit into this subject as well.
And the American Climbing Fern is also scarce, and we have seen it in our Longleaf Restoration area. It thrives in wet, acidic soils.
Lion’s mane is a large, white, and shaggy mushroom that has some medicinal purposes. Has been found here but not in extent.
We also have a few locations where Resurrection Fern has been found. Resurrection Fern is a type of epiphytic fern that grows on top of tree branches and trunks but is not parasitic and does not harm the host.
Christina, as we approach the conclusion of our talk today, I wanted to ask you about both volunteering and accessibility. Let’s start with volunteering.
Partnerships and volunteers are a huge support for the park and services we provide to the public. Volunteers help to maintain our trails, gardens, disc golf course and provide human power for events/camps annually. We are also a source for school credit for high school, college and clubs when needing to complete service hours.
How does one volunteer?
Very good, and what about accessibility?
Any special programs for those with different abilities or comfort levels?
We have recently introduced a program called Birdability to help connect nature with those visitors with different abilities or comfort levels. We also have park brochures available in Spanish. We have some other resources that have been translated in Spanish and recorded opportunities in sign language, which we will continue to grow in these offerings. Also, multiple Mobil Tours have been developed for onsite or device access to learn about local trees, history, nature and more about and within the park.
I also want to mention that we serve a gambit of interests for all ages and physical skill level. We provide a variety of education programs that focus on the environment, history, and recreation, which are free to the public, but some do require registration. Registration is online within our ActiveNet portal here.
I want to thank Christina for meeting with us today. As you may have picked up in reading, I’m a big fan of Harris Lake County Park. I first went there in 2014 as part of a college field trip and I’ve been there a number of times since. Now that I live only 20-mins away, it’s almost always my first choice when I’m thinking of where to go for a nice, long, quiet hike or a still kayak ride. They’ve really set a standard for a well-maintained park that I try to live up to in my work at Jordan Lake.
APPENDIX – A HISTORY OF THE LONGLEAF PINE
The original settlers, interested primarily in agriculture, largely bypassed the Sandhills region and its immense stands of longleaf pine. But slowly, people with other motives came looking for profits, and found the seemingly limitless treasure trove of the longleaf pine forests.
In the nineteenth century, naval stores -- tar, pitch, turpentine, and rosin -- were highly sought after. Naval stores refer to tree by-products used extensively in early ship building. For hundreds of years, boat builders used pine pitch to waterproof the seams between the planks of their wooden ships. Sailors coated the rigging of sails with tar to protect the ropes from the corrosive salt air.
They also used the tar to patch leaks. Hundreds of ships from all over the world anchored in the ports of Wilmington and Charleston to load barrels of naval stores “mined” in the deep longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills.
Turpentine and rosin were produced from the gummy resin contained in the living trees. The longleaf pines were opened by hacking into the trunks low on the tree so the sap could be collected -- not unlike the process of collecting maple sugar sap in the production of syrups. The gum was collected every few weeks and taken to a distillery, whereby heating it was separated into a clear liquid called turpentine and a darker solid called rosin.
Unfortunately, the destructive methods of the tupentiners killed many trees and left others vulnerable to storms and fires. By the 1880s and 1890s, longleaf pine was among the most sought after timber trees in the country. Its slow growth created wood of great strength. Longleaf lumber was shipped all over the world as giant squared timbers for use in building bridges, factories, and wharves. Thousands of heartwood crossties were made from longleaf pine and used by railroads throughout the country.
As they stripped the woods of their trees, loggers left mounds of flammable debris that frequently fueled catastrophic fires, destroying both the remaining trees and seedlings. The exposed earth left behind by clear cutting operations was highly susceptible to erosion, and nutrients were washed from the already porous soils. This further destroyed the natural seeding process.
At the peak of the timber cutting in the 1890s and the first decade of the new century, the longleaf pine forests of the Sandhills were providing millions of board feet of timber each year. The timber cutters gradually moved across the South; by the 1920s, most of the “limitless” virgin longleaf pine forests were gone.
In an attempt to protect the remaining longleaf pine forests and encourage regeneration, turn-of-the-century foresters made a classic mistake: they condemned the frequent fires used by the Native Americans, cattlemen, and turperntiners, and turned instead to a policy of fire suppression. This policy caused natural fuels (needles, limbs, cones, and scrub-oak leaves and twigs) to accumulate rapidly in the remaining forests, creating even worse fire hazards. Without fire, the diverse ground cover was slowly smothered beneath the dense carpet of pine needles and oak leaves. Longleaf pine seeds could no longer germinate because they could not reach the mineral soil. Scrub oak, normally shrub-sized in the natural longleaf forests swept by frequent fires, grew into dense, tall thickets, further preventing light to the forest floor and competing with the longleaf seedlings for soil nutrients and moisture.
The wildlife accustomed to the open longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem -- wild turkeys, fox squirrels, bob-white quail, and red-cockaded woodpeckers -- virtually disappeared, replaced by the inhabitants of denser pine forests. The intricate interplay of life adapted to longleaf pine ecosystem was slowly dying.
Today, longleaf pine is an ecosystem in trouble everywhere in the South. Of the estimated 90 million acres in the pre-settlement forests, only about 2 million acres of mostly second-growth longleaf pine remain in scattered patches. Less than half of that is found on public lands. Those stands of longleaf in private ownership continue to decline, as landowners replace the longleaf with faster growing species such as loblolly pine. And, despite our increasing knowledge about the beneficial role of fire, especially fire during the growing season, many landowners still do not burn their longleaf pine forests, or do not burn them often enough.