Jackie Miller, left, chats with National Park Service Ranger Jerry Hightower, right, at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, while Marie deVenoge, center, listens in.

We went looking signs of an early spring. We found snow.

Really.

In March. On the banks of the Chattahoochee River. The sky spit flurries of the stuff. Not enough to stick to the ground, of course, but brief flurries of actual snow. Time and time again.

At first, everyone made jokes. We were here in search of warmer weather, after all. Maybe these flakes falling all around us were really white flower blossoms floating on the first spring breezes, someone suggested.

They weren’t.

Winter had played a trick on us. During the first weekend of March, at the end of a mild winter, grey clouds filled the sky. Chilly breezes blew. Everyone wore layers. Snowflakes dusted our jackets and caps. Somewhere, no doubt, groundhogs were laughing at our all-too-human inability to predict a change in the seasons.

“I feel like we should run to the grocery store and buy milk and bread,” one hiker joked.

But we weren’t daunted by a few frozen flakes. The 20 of us marched on, determined to find proof that spring was near, if not really here.

We were on a “Harbingers of Spring Discovery Hike,” a spring-themed walk along the Chattahoochee River held March 2. We bundled-up hikers intended to track down the first bloom of spring in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Veteran National Park Service Ranger Jerry Hightower served as our guide. Hightower knows his way around the river. He grew up nearby and has shown visitors the string of parks headquartered in Sandy Springs for 35 of the 37 years he’s worked for the park service. He hadn’t counted on snow, either.

“We had a winter walk on Jan. 12 and we were watching snakes and everybody was in their shirtsleeves. Then, we do the first walk of spring…,” Hightower said, his voice drifting into the chilly air. “You never know. Luckily, I know how to treat hypothermia.”

Cold comfort, that.

The hikers came from all over metro Atlanta – Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Mableton, Marietta, Sharpsburg, Watkinsville. Some in the group wanted to see flowers and birds or just to meet other people who shared their interests in the outdoors. Others, including Randie Cowan of Sandy Springs, came for the exercise. “The nature is just a bonus,” she said. “We’re just trying, after 21 years of living here, to get to know the area.”

Jackie Miller knew what lured her out that chilly morning. “Spring,” she said before the hike started.

“Wishful thinking,” Marilyn Haggerty of Sharpsburg replied.

Along the trail, Hightower mixed history and natural history lessons as he talked of everything from ancient Indian settlements to grist mills to the uses of the red sap in bloodroot. And he diligently searched out those early indicators that a change in the weather was due. He found them: trilliums and trout lilies.

The trout lily, he said, “is one of the true harbingers of spring.” Here, hillsides were covered in them. The problem? It was just too wintry a day for the lilies to truly strut their stuff. The flowers needed to be warmed by the sun to open up. “If you want to see something spectacular,” Hightower said, “come back when the sun is out.”

Winter had played one last trick. The bright flowers of spring were taking a grey day off.

Spring would have to bloom another day.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.