There’s no doubt that the growing popularity of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail contributed to Saturday’s record attendance at the Friends of the MST annual meeting. There’s also no doubt that having Tom Earnhardt as the keynote speaker goosed the numbers as well.

Tom Earnhardt (photo courtesy the subject)
Tom Earnhardt (photo courtesy the subject)

Earnhardt, best known as for his weekly “Exploring North Carolina” series on UNC-TV, is a lawyer by training, a naturalist by birth. Growing up in the mountains where his family had a cabin at the foot of Bearwallow Mountain, Earnhardt told Saturday’s gathering that he knew every salamander on the mountain. He said his fascination with state’s geography — from the salt marshes at the coast to the northern boreal forests at its highest reaches — traces back to the day his dad took him to a spot in Hickory Nut Gorge where a sign read “Eastern Continental Divide / 2880 feet” and explained that water falling on the east side of the sign would eventually wind up in the Atlantic Ocean, water on the west side in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I found that fascinating,” he recalled. So much so that he gathered his buddies to test this new-found knowledge — by peeing on both sides of the sign.
Earnhardt, who spends much of his time exploring the state’s rich biodiversity, was an appropriate choice to talk about the MST, which explores nearly the entire state. He said one of the many great things about the MST is that it helps people learn the “ground truth” about the state.
Learning the ground truth goes back to his days in the military, in decoding school, where they would pour over maps — maps that could only tell them so much. “There were choke points and blindspots and other things the maps couldn’t tell us. The only way to confirm what was on the property was to ground truth it.” To go out and walk it.
Though speaking to the choir, he made a good case for learning the ground truth about North Carolina via the MST.
“North Carolina is in the temperate zone,” he said. “We’re about 500 miles long and 180 miles at the widest spot. The coast is influenced both by the Gulf Stream from the south and the Labrador Current from the north. We have Mount Mitchell and 43 other 6,000-foot peaks.”
He was just getting warmed up. In addition, North Carolina has:

  • 17 river basins
  • Boreal forests otherwise not found again until Canada
  • 450 bird species
  • Rich cove forests, some of which in the southwest part of the state see more than 80 inches of rainfall a year, qualifying them as rain forests
  • Carnivorous plants near Wilmington
  • Trees dating back 1,700 years in the Three Sisters area of the Black River
  • 450 species of trees
  • 3,000 species of moths
  • 8,000 mushrooms
  • 45 crayfish

“Forty-five crayfish!” he stops and exclaims. “I used to think there was just one crayfish — the crayfish!”
“We have the diversity that everyone else dreams about,” he said.
The best way to appreciate this diversity, he said, is to walk through it.
“The Mountains-to-Sea Trail,” he said, “is the beginning of a thousand miles of discovery.”