For 13 years, professional naturalist, biologist and educator Patrick McMillan has been taking PBS television viewers on exotic adventures across North and South America, introducing them along the way to an amazing array of wildlife and botanical wonders.
Among his favorite destinations is South Carolina's Jocassee Gorges, a unique and unspoiled wilderness nestled in the rugged mountains of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
"It's a place of astounding diversity," said the Emmy Award-winning host and co-creator of "Expeditions with Patrick McMillan."
"There are 64 species of salamanders in the gorges - more than in all of the Great Smoky Mountains. You'll find a tropical fern that doesn't grow in any other place in North America. Nowhere else in the world will you see nine species of trillium on one slope of a mountain."
Located less than an hour from Clemson University where McMillan serves as the Hilliard Professor of Environmental Sustainability, Jocassee Gorges is a never-ending source of discovery with its lush forestlands, abundance of waterfalls and temperate microclimate. Several episodes of McMillan's nature program have focused on the many rare plants found in the gorges' diverse habitats.
"Every day is different," McMillan said. "No matter how many times I visit, I seem to discover something new."
The public now has the opportunity to join McMillan as he explores Lake Jocassee, a cold, crystal-clear reservoir on the western edge of the Jocassee Gorges. Lake Jocassee Tours offers excursions with the TV host the first Sunday of each month.
Much like McMillan's nature programs, the four-hour boat trips are as entertaining as they are educational. On one of his expeditions in the late spring, he captivated the dozen guests on the tour with his extraordinary depth of knowledge and infectious excitement of the natural world.
The first stop on the tour was a sheer rock wall rising 100 feet above the water. Some 40 years ago, Duke Power dynamited the side of the mountain, using the quarried rock to build the lake's earthen dam.
Because the sun never shines on a large section of the wall, subtropical ferns are able to grow in the crevices. Within minutes of arriving at the massive rock face, McMillan had pointed out five different species, all recently colonized.
Traveling across the lake to a shaded cove, he introduced the group to a viburnum called wild raisin.
"In the fall, it produces a smell like a dog has taken a poop in the woods," said McMillan, who serves as director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, Bob Campbell Geology Museum and Clemson Experimental Forest.
The botanical show-and-tell included more than a dozen different shrubs, plants and trees, each with its own curious story or scientific nugget.
Riding around the lake, enveloped by the stunning scenery of the densely forested mountains, it's easy to understand why this remote undeveloped land has enchanted McMillan for so many decades.
An accomplished birder, he got excited to see two loons in full mating plumage swimming in the water. The birds, he explained, have difficulty walking on land, so they create floating nests out of vegetation.
At one stop, where the group stepped ashore to take a short walk through the woods, McMillan identified a number of birds by their call. He devoted an entire show in his nature series to the sounds of birds.
"It's how we survey birds," he said. "Often times you don't see them, you hear them."
Upon identifying the call of a yellow-throated warbler, he began scanning the tree tops with his binoculars to try to find the elusive bird.
"I have video of some of the rarest warblers in the world," he said, "but I haven't been able to capture the yellow-throated warbler, even though it's the most widespread warbler in South Carolina."
Lake Jocassee Tours launches from the dock at Devils Fork State Park in Salem, South Carolina. To reserve a seat on one of the First Sunday Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, call 864.280.5501 or visit www.jocasseelaketours.com.