family traditionSeven-hundred-sixty-miles separate the white sandy beaches of Miami and the rolling mountains of Henderson County. The Fernandez family has been traveling to Western North Carolina from southern Florida for 26 consecutive years. It’s one trip where the destination — not the journey — is truly what matters.

Jose and Kathee Fernandez first visited Western North Carolina with their children, Joe and Ana, in the mid-1980s. The lush forests and welcoming mountains offered reprieve from their busy lives in Miami managing a construction company responsible for a significant portion of south Florida’s roadways and airports.

“It’s a place where you can slow down, work on the land while listening to the birds sing, feel a cool breeze and just be at peace,” reflects Jose. “The outdoor recreational opportunities and interaction with a diverse landscape make it the best place for our family to connect and enjoy together.”

Inspired by the tranquility, scenic beauty and abundance of outdoor recreation, Jose and Kathee purchased a 149-acre farm near Edneyville in 1990. The land boasts creeks, ponds, oak and eastern hemlock forests and pastures where their horses graze. Wildlife seek refuge and thrive. The gentle, rolling hills and the deep woods provide endless opportunities to meander freely.

“We liked it the way it is,” says Jose, who knew he needed to conserve the land in order to preserve it. In 2009, they partnered with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to permanently protect 136 acres of the property. “We didn’t want to ever see it divided and developed,” Jose adds.

Returning to their Western North Carolina home each year has become a tradition for the family, one that is now being passed down to Jose and Kathee’s grandchildren.

Each summer and most holidays, their two children and their spouses, together with the four grandchildren, gather at Jose and Kathee’s mountain home. They gaze out the living room window at Bearwallow Mountain, crowned with a grassy meadow. At 4,232 feet, it’s the highest peak in the widely-visible Bearwallow Highlands range. They hike and ride bikes together on trails that wind through rhododendron, maple and pine, stopping to examine acorns, mushrooms and caterpillars along the way. They eat lunch atop mountain summits, taking in sweeping views of the mist slowly drifting up from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“My first child was born six years ago and it’s important to me that both of my children have summers at the farm as part of their childhood,” shares Ana. “Our kids learn just as much exploring these trails, creeks and mountains as they do sitting in a classroom. It’s also a haven for our family. We connect here and spend quality time as a family, despite the distance between us where we live.”

mountain summitAna and Daniel’s children, Eric, 6, and Sofia, 5, race up the Bearwallow trail, climb on moss-covered rocks and are inquisitive about the plants and insects around them. At the top, they giggle as a grazing herd of cattle greets them — an experience they wouldn’t find among the swaying palms of Miami.

Ana's brother Joe, his wife Becky, and their children Alina, 5, and Joseph, 3, join them. “The four of us now live in central California, but this place captures your heart no matter where you reside,” says Joe.

The family is attracted to the relaxed lifestyle, the warm people and the change of seasons iconic to Appalachia. They understand our natural resources are precious and limited.

“Our family has been able to grow up enjoying the open space and beauty of the area,” Ana says. “We feel strongly that places like this need to be protected and conserved so that our children and their children can have the same experience and appreciation that we enjoy. There is something very special for children and adults alike when we have access to unadulterated nature and beauty. The lesson of caring for our natural spaces started with my parents, and my children are getting a front seat to how we do that in practice.”

Conservation is a passion for the family. Jose and Kathee started a charitable family foundation that has environmental issues as a key focus. “We want to contribute, as best we can, to the betterment of the environment and society in our local communities,” says Jose. “Our goal, as a foundation, is to help create a more sustainable place to live. Part of how we do that is through environmental conservation and advocacy. The land in Western North Carolina is a perfect place for us to do this work, where we can support the area that is so special to our family.”

The foundation has generously enabled the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to save invaluable lands and waters in the Hickory Nut Gorge and surrounding region, allowing people from all walks of life to take a break from the hustle and bustle and enjoy the meandering trails, panoramic views and peaceful escape that these natural treasures provide.

“The foundation is a beautiful way for us to keep common threads through our family,” says Ana, who now serves as the foundation's executive director. “In spite of our busy and different lives, we come together to work for good.”

“Connection to the land is essential for human well-being,” shares Jose. He smiles as he describes the way his grandchildren’s eyes light up, mirroring the same excitement his children had uncovering the marvels of these mountains. The tradition of coming together as a family each year to share the simple joys of the land flourishes as a love for nature shines in the next generation.

“Our family loves the open space, the slower pace and the adventure lurking around each corner. We love the balance it gives us to our lives in Miami,” says Ana. “It just feels good here.”


“There is a wolf in me. …I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.” 

-Excerpt from "Wilderness" by Carl Sandburg

Eagle's NestFor Jodi John Pippin, Sandburg’s poem is a reflection of her experiences growing up at Eagle’s Nest, a summer camp and academic semester school nestled amongst the dense forests, cool creeks, cascading waterfalls and rolling mountains of Transylvania County.

“Once you feel that you belong to the land and that it belongs to you, there is no way to let it go,” says Pippin. “The connection cannot be unheard or unfelt.  It is a rare thing today, to find 143 acres of conserved land that has 90 years of life-changing stories to go with it.”

Over the past six years, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy worked with Eagle’s Nest to permanently protect more than 75% of the 184-acre property, saving the invaluable educational, outdoor and cultural adventures that so many generations keep coming back to experience.

As a child, the Blue Ridge Mountains cast an enchanting spell on Pippin. As a teenager, she slow danced at camp for the first time knowing she could relax and just be herself… even while stepping on her partner’s toes. As a young adult, morning strolls through the rhododendron thicket made her feel completely at peace with the world. She fell in love with her now husband on the front porch of the dining hall while she was a camp counselor. They have three children and, as an adult, Pippin has watched them with pride as they grow comfortable in their own skin as campers and students at Eagle’s Nest.

Pippin’s story is not unique.

“I wanted my children to be able to grow and experience independence in a safe, positive, inspiring environment away from home as I did,” says Cissy Byrd, who attended the camp in the late 1960s and 1970s. “I wanted them to be influenced by and build trust in people beyond our family. I wanted them to find joy and build confidence in themselves and feel the rewards of contributing to and being part of a community. I knew that they would get these things at Eagle's Nest.”

Over the decades, Eagle’s Nest has expanded from its beginnings as an all-girls camp when it first opened its doors in 1927. It transitioned to a coed camp in the 1940s, chartered as a nonprofit 501c3 in 1950, started offering specialized wilderness-based programs for teens in the 1970s and added The Outdoor Academy (academic semester school) for high school sophomores in the 1990s. Today, all these programs operate under the umbrella of Eagle’s Nest Foundation.

“Eagle’s Nest emphasizes a child's development with a nurturing community in nature,” shares Mo Waite, whose parents, Alex and Hannah Waite, ran the camp for more than three decades. Mo grew up at Eagle’s Nest, studying salamandersandwaterbugs and learning how to use an axe and cross cut saw.

The multi-generational connection continued, with Mo’s wife Helen, an experiential educator, taking the helm from his parents in 1978. His daughter, Noni Waite-Kucera, attended camp and since 2000, has served as the Executive Director of Eagle’s Nest Foundation. Today, Mo’s grandchildren listen to the sounds of bullfrogs at the lake and make s’mores around the campfire on the hill just as he did in the 1940s.

“With all these changes, the mission remained unchanged,” says Mo. “The clear vision of my parents when they founded Eagle's Nest has stood the test of time through many advances.”

Eagle’s Nest allows campers and students to strip away the complexities of life and experience a simpler way of living. To take a deep breath of fresh mountain air, touch the towering pine trees and gaze up at the stars twinkling in the dark night sky.  

“The times that I spent lying in a field of tall grass watching the clouds roll by and letting the crickets leap across my cheek, the times that I took groups of kids wandering up the trails to find the giant Frasier Magnolia...these are forever imprinted in my mind,” says Pippin. “That land is full of variety and surprise.  I will always love it and feel that I am a part of it.”

outdoor school

Educational experiences are deeply steeped in every aspect of life at Eagle’s Nest. Myriad English, math, music and science classes teach critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and tolerance. But, those same skills are also acquired in the 12 cabins where the soft breeze permeates the screen windows, in the dining hall where the rain pounds down like drums on the roof, and in the open air Arts Arena where projects are crafted with natural materials found steps away.

“I'm often trying to live out the person Eagle’s Nest empowered me to be in the greater world,” shares Jamey Lowdermilk, “to be open, kind, creative, to be diligent and light-hearted.  I gained these values making my way through the many experiences Eagle’s Nest offers.”

Lowdermilk continues to apply these lifelong skills today, as a law student. “So much of our days are absorbed with stress driven by more stress,” says Lowdermilk. “Eagle’s Nest taught me to get to the heart of what matters. Am I contributing to meaningful work? Am I in good company? Are there opportunities for play, rest and reflection?”

Eagle’s Nest continues to serve as home to a diverse community of young people from around the world. It has welcomed students from Cuba and youth living with diabetes. Conserving this land ensures that our children and grandchildren will continue to connect with the wonders that only nature can provide.

“Eagle’s Nest is special for its commitment to authentic, lived experiences; for its commitment to the past and to growing into the future,” says Lowdermilk.  “It empowers young people to explore their unique perspectives, ideas, and curiosities while reconnecting all of us to natural rhythms and native landscapes.”

Pippin shares that without the important partnership of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Eagle’s Nest Foundation, generations of campers and students would risk losing their roots, their magic and their connection to that land.

“The intricate mushrooms that pop up in between classrooms, the rays of sunshine that drop down through the trees, the sound of the hawk circling during group activities,” shares Pippin. “These are the precious moments that will continue to fall into the laps of those who are lucky enough to walk the paths of Eagle’s Nest at 43 Hart Road.”


Juanita Bruce pushes her kayak off the tree-covered banks of the Green River and takes a moment to soak it all in.

The three-mile stretch that she paddles is bursting with life. River cooter turtles dip into the water. Monarch butterflies flutter around. White-tailed deer bound along the shore. She has entered a green oasis and her worries are carried away with the gentle current.

“Nature provides us with an overwhelming sense of awe, beauty, security and protection,” shares Juanita. Juanita was born and raised near the Green River at Lake Adger Dam. She has spent most of her 74 years exploring its wonders.

“I was baptized in the Green River. They don’t do that much anymore,” Juanita says with a smile. It’s where her home is and where her heart is.

In the 1920s, Juanita’s grandfather moved his family from South Carolina to become the first superintendent of the newly built Lake Adger Dam and Duke Turner Shoals power plant. Her father and uncles made their livelihood at the plant as well. “Dad met my mom, a local girl, and made our home by the river,” reflects Juanita.

Saving the Land

In April 2016, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) partnered with Polk County Community Foundation to acquire 586 acres along the Green River, ensuring people like Juanita have a peaceful place to retreat and local wildlife have a safe place to call home.

The 586-acre property is separated into two tracts. CMLC protects a 155-acre tract located upstream of South Wilson Hill Road and a second 431-acre tract located downstream of South Wilson Hill Road was purchased by Community Green LLC, a subsidiary of Polk County Community Foundation.

We were able to purchase the smaller tract with a generous $225,000 gift from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury and a $225,000 loan from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. We have until April 2017 to pay off the loan and are seeking contributions to permanently secure the tract for conservation. 

Every Bit Counts

“We could never be more grateful for the substantial gifts made by our major donors and partners,” thanks Lynn Killian, CMLC development director. “But, no project is ever completed without the enormous generosity of an army of loyal, everyday conservation donors. The small gifts of many are just as critical to each conservation success.”

Combined, the tracts contain more than three miles of spectacular riverside frontage. It’s a beautifully dense and heavily forested area with south-facing bluffs steeply rising up from the banks.

“Saving lands and waters from development means ‘nature’s own’ can be shared by the masses as opposed to only a few,” says Juanita. “CMLC helps us connect to nature by creating trails leading us into the forest and protecting waters leading us down the valley.”

Over the years, Juanita’s family enjoyed tubing the river and when kayaks became popular, she opted for their speed, control and efficiency. “Outdoor activities give us great opportunities to enjoy the God-given beauty of nature,” shares Juanita. “It gives us great exercise, provides challenges to ‘try our wings’ and see what we can accomplish.”

A Place for Life to Thrive

The property boasts healthy populations of hemlocks—a rarity in Western North Carolina—as the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid has taken its toll across our region. The woolly adelgid is native to China and Japan, where hemlock trees possess immunity. Most hemlocks throughout the world are protected by some degree of resistance in their native ranges. Here, with no natural predators, the trees lack any defense. Without natural predators, the adelgids take over.

Three rare plant species, whorled horsehair, ashy-leafed hydrangea and climbing milkvine, also prosper in the area. Almost the entire 586 acres are second and third-growth forest and will provide a stronghold for plants and animals to adapt even as the climate changes. 

Exploring Nature’s Gifts

“Kayaking the Green River in my area is quiet with only the sounds of the rippling water over the shoals, the breeze, the birds and the critters,” says Juanita. “The views are saturated with overhanging trees, boulders, farmlands, dense forests... There are many flowering plants, untouched, unmarred.” 

The land protected by CMLC keeps those peaceful views along the river intact. We see the 155 acres as a good site for a potential future rest stop on a paddle trail that could be created along the Green River. There is legal access to South Wilson Hill Road via private roads that pass through a subdivision.

“It’s as important to protect our lands and waters for future generations as it is for the current generation—an ongoing source of livelihood, enjoyment, recreation, appreciation and education,” says Juanita. “Thank goodness CMLC works to save these awe-inspiring places.”

We plan to partner with Pacolet Area Conservancy, which has a strong presence in Polk County, to help manage the property and assist with future guided hikes and outings. Recent kayaking has stopped short of the Wilson Bridge due to lack of a safe exit. Hopes are high this acquisition will provide a safe experience for hikers, birders, photographers and paddlers alike.   

With a few easy strokes Juanita is off, drifting into a place of peace and serenity. “I love the heron leading me down the river, stopping to wait on me before flying on,” she calls over her shoulder. “This is home to me. I love it all.”


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