Rudy Mancke and a group of nature walkers make their way across Forty Acre Rock to learn about the preserve and capture photos. (Images by Grace Brown)

A group gathers around naturalist Rudy Mancke while standing atop Forty Acre Rock. 

He explains how long the massive granite slab of rock has been there and the species of plants that call it home. 

This was the second time Mancke had led a walk at this location through the University of South Carolina’s Continuing Education program. But he’d walked this trail many times himself. 

USC’s naturalist-in-residence has led nature walks across the state of South Carolina for the program since 2014. 

“We’ve got people from all over the state and out of state who come,” Mancke said. “So we try to have at least one close to them – one close to the mountains, one close to the coast and then a few things in between.” 

The walks are open to the public. Anyone can join by paying a course fee and being one of the first 25 participants to sign up. 

One husband and wife have joined the walks for 15 years, traveling all the way from Tennessee. They said they still remember their first walk with Mancke, at the Congaree National Park. 

Each walk includes a mixed group of regulars and those who are taking their first one. 

April and Scott Osborne were among the first-timers. When the group was heading back to the parking lot to say their goodbyes, they beamed about how great the walk was. 

They had been looking forward to it for some time and “grew up watching (Mancke’s) shows.” 

Mancke has been teaching for the university since the early 2000s. For 23 years before that, he was a host of SCETV’s NatureScene, a widely popular nature exploration show.

Lynn Betterley is the program coordinator for the four walks offered through Continuing Education. 

“We plan (the sites) a year in advance,” Betterley said. “… Rudy makes the final decision.”

This particular mid-March walk featured dogwoods flowering early, mistletoe in the tops of persimmon trees, black knot fungus on wild cherry trees – and more.

The group asked Mancke questions. Mancke answered and challenged their knowledge with a question of his own. 

Mancke also talked about how Forty Acre Rock houses some of the rarest plants in South Carolina. 

The group took photos of pool sprite, the common name of one of these rare plants, at the very top. 

“It’s so nondescript, but it’s extremely rare,” Mancke said. “The habitat has to be just right for that thing to survive.”

Mancke’s walks are designed for participants to learn a lot as they go. 

But it’s more than that. They are drawn specifically to learning and hearing from Mancke himself. 

As the group continued, murmurs of, “He’s terrific,” or “a special one” echoed down the trail.  

Mary Little noted how naturally all this came to Mancke.

“He’s sharing his knowledge like breathing.” 

Mancke carefully handles a Rainbow Scarab Beetle to show to the group.

Everyone talks while heading down the trail, stopping to listen to Mancke talk when he wanted to point out something.

One participant takes a closer look at what’s growing on the granite rock and captures a photo.

Mancke shows the group a dogwood flower before the walk began.