Thursday, April 17, 2014

Clues to my Next Adventure

I'm planning my next adventure, pouring over maps and trail information.  I'll be going later this spring.  Can you guess where?  Here are some clues...
1. The state I will be hiking in was, until 1863, part of one of the original 13 states.
2. This state is known for its mountains, coal, moonshine, and a very famous and deadly feud.  It is "wild and wonderful."
3. John Denver thought this place was "almost heaven."
4. The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was founded where two rivers meet to form the Ohio River.  I will be hiking in a national forest that has the name of one of those two rivers.
5. Within that national forest is a wilderness area.  At nearly 48,000 acres (19,400 hectares) , it is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River.
6. As a wilderness area, the 70 miles (112 km) of hiking trail contained within are not blazed.  You have to find your own way, and cross the numerous streams without any foot bridges.
7. This area has a unique botanical area on its southern border known as the "something" Glades.  It has plants that would normally be found more in Canada.
8. The "something" Glades and the name of the wilderness itself are the name of a fruit.
9. Which fruit?  Well, it is small, red, and kind of tart, and grows in boggy and acidic areas.  Think Thanksgiving!
10. The wilderness area has a large black bear population, as well as stands of red spruce at its higher elevations, which reach 4,600 feet (1,400 meters).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Aerial View From My Laurel Forks Hike

In my post last weekend about backpacking in the Laurel Forks area of Virginia's George Washington National Forest, my last two photos were of a coniferous forest and of a "beaver bog" - a wetland created when beavers abandoned their pond and dam to Nature's force.  While standing in the forest, I sent an InReach message out, and when I looked at it back home, I thought that it was a pretty cool image.

So I am sharing it here, and you can compare it with the two photos in the post referenced above.  The red arrow in the lower right is where I was standing when I sent the message, and corresponds to the forest in the next to last photo.  The boggy area extending to the left (west) of that point is the "beaver bog" depicted in the last photo of the Laurel Forks blog post.

I again say - this looks far more like the northern wilds of Maine or Minnesota that it does of Virginia!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Laurel Forks Over-Nighter

For months, I have been kind of intrigued with an overnight hike into the Laurel Forks area.  This is a very rugged mountainous area in the George Washington National Forest on the West Virginia - Virginia border.  My guidebook showed a great 14 mile loop that could be a long day hike or a perfect over-nighter.  So after some planning, and cancelling those plans once for wintry weather, I went there this past Friday and Saturday (yesterday).

Just reaching this area from my house is an adventure.  It is almost a 4 hour drive, and you actually approach it from the West Virginia side.  One must drive, via switchbacks, over three mountain ranges after crossing the Blue Ridge.  The red circle on the map below gives the location.
This hike was my first time solo backpacking in, well, decades.  I had asked a friend but he could not go.  I know that some would consider going on a trip like this dangerous, but it is not like I was being air-lifted into the Gates of the Arctic.  You just need to be careful and self-reliant, and err on the side of caution, which I did twice on this hike.

Ah, the best laid plans!  I had planned on the 14 mile figure of eight route that my guidebook had described.  But my first adjustment came about an hour into the hike when I could not find the correct trail.  On my route map below (I started and ended at the top left, and Friday's trek is shown in the red route, Saturday's in the blue), you will see a route that headed west for a while, marked by an upwards facing purple arrow.  This is where I spent nearly an hour going back and forth trying to find a marked trail before I gave up and continued across the trail that I was on.  The guidebook said the junction was at 1.5 miles and exactly at that point, the GPS showed a trail coming in on the right.  As it turned out, the junction was about another 0.3 miles, but by that time, I had wasted so much time that I decided to just keep going.

Now, look at the lower right and you will see another track, indicated by the leftwards pointing purple arrow, where I turned around.  Here is the story on that:  It was about 3:30, and it was clear that a storm was coming in.  I had passed a really nice camp site about 1.5 miles back.  If I continued along the route that I planned, I would do a loop and reach essentially the same spot about four miles later.  The thought of hiking in the rain only to have to set everything up in the rain was not that appealing.  So I turned around and went back, and got everything set up just before the rain started at around 5PM.
Here is the elevation profile for the first day.  I hiked just 6.8 miles instead of the 10.4 planned, and it was mostly downhill.
And here are two elevation profiles for the second day.  Why two?  Well, my GPS battery was dying and so I saved the track to date and started another one.  It was mostly uphill as you can see, and the total was 3.6 miles.  So my total hike, including diversions, was 10.4 miles.  Total elevation gain and loss was about 2,600 feet.

This was a really nice hike. It started out at about 3,700 feet in elevation, and coniferous forests were the rule.  It was so pleasant hiking along here, like being transplanted to the "north woods."
Do you see a trail here?  Neither did I!  This was the point where I gave up the idea of hiking the "outer loop," and just continued straight across.  I did find the trail later, but had already spent so much time that the more direct route seemed like a better idea.  If I could do it over again, I would have taken the "outer loop" trail, since I ended up not hiking most of the "figure of eight" part anyway.

You can see that spring has not yet really come to Highland County, Virginia, although they are no doubt collecting sap from maple trees in parts of the county.
This part of the George Washington National Forest is very rugged, a land of streams, ridges, and valleys.  There is very little level land anywhere.  At one point the area was so heavily logged that railroad tracks were built.  Many of the trails follow the old railway beds, and you can find leftover pieces of industrial equipment scattered about.
This is Laurel Fork, a major stream.  On my hike, I did at least 12-15 stream crossings, and never got my feet - except here.  There is no way to cross without fording it, it is simply too wide and too deep.  I swapped my hiking boots for my Tevas.
Heck yeah, it was cold!  I got to cross it again a while later when I gave up on the second loop and came back this way to camp.
I spied this cave high up a steep ridge, and felt compelled to check it out.  Maybe I could find a rattlesnake there.  So I clambered up the very steep slope, camera at the ready, and what did I find inside? ...
Just the skull of this unfortunate beaver!  This area used to have lots of beavers, and when things go well, life is good.  But eventually, they cut down trees faster than they can possibly grow, and they have no choice but to leave or starve.  Also, at some point, the juveniles are forced to leave home to find their own territory.  In either event, it is a very dangerous time for them as they wander through forests without the protection of their pond.  I wonder what this unlucky fellow's tale was?
Once I retraced my steps and crossed back over Laurel Fork, I set up camp under the rhododendrons by Laurel Fork.  It was a gorgeous site to camp.  Because I don't do anything harmful to the stream, like wash dishes in it or bathe, I don't mind camping by a stream.  And this one was well used - there were at least three fire pits, including a huge and elaborate one near my tent.  I would have loved to have had a fire, but the rain started just after five, and continued for hours.  I ate my meal cooked in a bag standing under the rhododendrons, and crawled into my tent by 6PM!  I came out twice when the rain stopped, but it would almost immediately start raining again.  I finally took a walk at dusk in the rain, and then went to bed for good.  At about 10:30 I awoke to answer Nature's call, and it was clear and cold, with a beautiful moon.
My hike out Saturday was mostly uphill, and lovely Buck Run was my companion for much of it.  I encountered the only other people I saw during my trip, a father and his daughter camping along Buck Run in a tiny level area.  They had hiked down in the dark and rain Friday night.  No thank you!
I think that this is wood sorrel.  It reminded me of shamrocks.
This is typical of the deciduous forest in early spring in the mountains.  I heard very few birds.  As far as wildlife, I saw four ruffed grouse (and heard one drumming), three mergansers, a kingfisher, a couple of small birds, including a small woodpecker, and a red-backed salamander.  Walking along this section of the trail, I continually heard male woodpeckers drumming on trees.  I am not sure which species, though, but they were not pileated woodpeckers - something smaller.
As I regained all of the elevation lost the day before, the conifers returned.
This used to a beaver pond many years ago.  Doesn't it look like something out of Maine or Minnesota, not Virginia?  I didn't see any type of tree that a beaver would eat, and the stumps of trees that they had cut down were so old that they were covered in lichens.  Now this area is a bog, but probably still has some wildlife value due to making the area more diverse.
My trek to Laurel Forks ended just after this point.  Even though it didn't go quite as planned, I enjoyed seeing a brand new area and camping out along the way.  It would have been perhaps a bit more fun to have another person along, but there is also something to be said for being the only human being in a particular spot among the 7 billion or so of us in the world.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Springtime at Maymont

If you live in the Richmond area, it is a gorgeous spring day, and you want to take a nice walk - but you don't have time to make it to the mountains - then Maymont is the answer!  And that is where I spent part of my afternoon, enjoying every moment of it.

Maymont is a combination park, historical site, botanical garden, nature center, and zoo, all within city limits along the James River.  It was the property of the Dooley's many years ago, and upon their deaths, they bequeathed it to the city for use as a public space.  I don't know how large it is, but I easily got in about four miles of walking today while I was there.

My walk started and ended here, with a vista of part of Maymont.  It is free to the public, but they suggest a donation of five dollars, which seemed like a bargain.
Oh, give me a home, where the large bison roam....
God always decorates using the purple and green of Team in Training in the spring.
During my hike a week ago at Caledon Natural Area, I saw at least five bald eagles, but none as close as this adult.  There is a very nice raptor exhibit here, using birds of prey that were injured and cannot return to the wild.
Tours of the Dooley mansion can be had for a fee.
Three lovely ladies grace the lawn in front of the mansion.
Normally, magnolias would be well past bloom by this time of year here.  Not in 2014!  Everything that should have been blooming in the past five to six weeks is in bloom simultaneously this year.
The Japanese garden is so peaceful and beautiful.
Weeping cherry blossoms by the Japanese garden.
The Japanese garden artfully combines water, plants, and human made objects to gorgeous effect.
From Japan, I arrived in Tuscany a few moments later.  Give me a bottle of red wine, a salad, and a loaf of crusty bread here, and I could have died a happy man!  ;^)
There are two beautiful and large cherries in bloom next to the carriage house.
My afternoon at Maymont was a perfect way to spend an hour or two.  My next hike will likely be grander in scope, but not any more beautiful, I suspect.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Emergency Kit

I've recently upgraded and modified the emergency gear kit I always carry when I hike or backpack.  It may seem like overkill until you turn an ankle on what should have been an easy day hike, the temperature is dropping, and you are facing a night alone in the woods.  My kit weighs several pounds and fits into this small orange bag:
Here is the contents of that little bag:
From the left hand side and more or less going in a clockwise direction, the items in this bag are: three heavy duty trash bags and a one gallon zip-top bag, an orange bandanna, my Leatherman Juice multi-tool, an SOL emergency bivy sack, a fire starter kit (matches, spark tool, and container with cotton pad and Vaseline "sandwiches"), a waterproof headlamp, an emergency space blanket, an emergency poncho, my Columbia River Knife and Tool RSK (Ritter Survival Knife) Mk6, the orange emergency kit bag, 50 feet of parachute cord, a small mirror, two rolls of duct tape, my compass, a whistle, and a small bottle of water purification tablets.  Depending on conditions, I could add or subtract items, such as insect repellent, hand-warmers, and sunscreen.  If I were backpacking, I might eliminate a few items, like the SOL bivy, poncho, and parachute cord on the thinking that I would have a rain jacket, a sleeping bag and tent, and separate parachute cord with my "bear bag."  But I might also carry them because they are so light and could be used to help someone else in an emergency.  Or if my sleeping bag got soaked in a river, I could still use the bivy sack to spend an uncomfortable but survivable night.

Do you think I am missing anything critical?  One thing I should add is a PowerBar as an emergency food source.  We can survive a long time without food, but a little something to eat can calm you down in a stressful and scary situation.

I'll be fine-tuning my kit now and again as I learn more and think about survival situations.  By the way, I always carry a separate first aid kit any time that I hike.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hiking in Caledon Natural Area SP

Yesterday, I had the day off from work and planned a hike.  My original plans had been to go for a one night backpacking trip in the rugged Laurel Forks area on the West Virginia border.  But given the snows we have been having lately, especially in the mountains, that seemed ill-advised, so I have put that trip on hold.  Instead, I headed to Caledon Natural Area State Park in Northern Virginia on the Potomac River.  See the red star below for the location:
Caledon Natural Area is mostly mature hardwood forest along the river, which is an important nesting area for bald eagles.  In addition to five bald eagles, I saw a great horned owl, a number of white-tailed deer, osprey, kingfisher, tufted titmice, chickadees, and juncos, among other birds.  Below is the route for my 7.2 mile hike, which was a loop with some out and back portions.  I started and ended at the star, and the red arrows show my travel direction.
Most of the hike was fairly easy, but there is some terrain, and especially the western most portions had a lot of short and steep uphill and downhill.
I am big fan of taking a topo map on my hikes, especially into the more remote areas.  But the state parks do a great job of marking their trails, and the trail maps that they provide was adequate for my travels yesterday.
There are a number of streams flowing through the park, heading to the Potomac River and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.  Soon after I started hiking, it began to rain steadily, and I put my binoculars away.
The photo below is very typical of the area, with some terrain and large hardwoods, generally 1-2 feet in diameter, with some much larger trees.
A footbridge crosses the swamp at this point, and this is where I saw the great horned owl.  I dug my binoculars out of my pack in the rain to get a better view.  That was a very cool sighting.
This is Caledon Marsh, on the edge of the river.  It was at this point, about three miles into my hike, that the rain stopped, and the sun even came partially out.  It was just in time for ....
... lunch by the Potomac River.  It was here that I saw the eagles and the ospreys, as well as the belted kingfisher.
This was the best photo I could get of a bald eagle.  This one was immature, but I saw several others mature ones with their striking white heads.
Late in the hike, I came upon this large hollowed-out tree.
It was hollow all the way to the bottom, and I imagine that animals sometimes den it it.
You can see that some of the trees area really large.  I leaned my trekking poles up against this one for a look at the scale.
I had a fun day hiking around and exploring the Caledon Natural Area.  It is a fascinating place, and sure beat being at work for the day.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rockfish Gap to Paul Wolfe Shelter

About a month ago, my hiking buddy Hawkeye suggested a winter hike along the Appalachian Trail from Rockfish Gap south to the first shelter on the trail from that point, the incomparable Paul Wolfe Shelter.  It would be five miles each way in the out and back hike, and we decided to go Sunday, March 2.  Along the way, I asked my friend Doug if he wanted to hike with us.  In the meantime, Hawkeye and I decided to do something a little different for a day hike and cook lunch at the shelter.  Since I am preparing for a short backpacking trip later this month, I wanted to carry some extra weight and brought things I normally wouldn't bring on a day hike, such as my stove, cook kit, and some extra clothing.  I got my total pack weight up to about 25 pounds.  Hawkeye thought that cooking some steak and vegetable packets in the fire would be a great lunch and I agreed, although I made mine heavy on the veggies and light on the steak.

Rockfish Gap is where Interstate 64 crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It is the jumping off point to Shenandoah National Park via the Skyline Drive to the north, and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south.  It has some history behind it, as the sign below shows.  At one point, this area would have been total wilderness.
The topo map below shows our route along the Appalachian Trail, started and returning to Rockfish Gap at the north (purple circle) and stopping at the Paul Wolfe Shelter to the south for several hours (purple arrow).
You can see that our route, based on the elevation profile, was typical of the Appalachian Mountains, with lots of ups and downs interspersed with some fairly level ridge lines.  The profile below is one way to the shelter.  I didn't record it on the way back, as it would have just been a mirror image of the five miles in.  The total elevation loss and gain for the whole trip would have been about 2,800 feet gained and 2,800 feet lost.  There was more downhill than uphill on the way in.

So we got to the trail head around 9AM and started hiking.  It was chilly at the time, and I started out with three layers, including a fleece.  Within 20 minutes, I stripped the fleece off and continued in a short sleeve wool shirt and a long sleeve wool shirt.  It was not long until I was in just the short sleeve shirt as the morning warmed rapidly.  It felt great!  And even lounging around the shelter, I only needed the one shirt for most of the time.

The photo below is typical of the woods we walked through - naked hardwoods.  The trail is very well maintained by the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club, which I need to rejoin.
Although there wasn't much snow in the woods, there were patches of ice in the creeks, of which we crossed at least four.
I liked the combination of whitewater and green moss in this small riffle.
Hawkeye and Doug hike along the Appalachian Trail.  Somewhere down in Georgia and North Carolina at this exact time, through-hikers are slowly making their way north.
After five miles of walking, we reached the Paul Wolfe Shelter, the nicest three sided back country shelter I ever remember seeing.  It even has a covered porch.
Our first order of business was to build a fire.  We collected, with relative ease, a lot of dry sticks from fallen branches.  We wanted a small, hot fire.  We collected dry twigs much less than pencil diameter, a bunch of twigs about at thick as a pencil, many finger sized twigs, and ended with small branches maybe 50% again as thick as a finger.  We collected some dry tinder, and got the fire going without a match by using my emergency fire starter flint.  I had never tried it before, and it worked like a charm.  See the smoke and the tiny flame on the right?
In minutes, we had a nice fire going among all the small branch pieces, and took time to explore a lot.  Very close to the shelter is a memorial bench to John Donovan, a long time member of the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club, who put this bench in this spot to honor John's memory.
John unfortunately died on the Pacific Crest Trail all alone in 2005, just days after his 60th birthday.  I wrote about it here.
What a lovely spot for this bench, the brook babbling as it flows inexorably towards the Chesapeake Bay hundreds of miles away.
Here is John's memorial bench, with the shelter about 100 or so feet away.
Did you ever camp at a back country shelter with a covered porch and a picnic table on the porch?  Talk about deluxe!  Not too long ago, some idiots built a fire on the porch and ruined it, but the ODATC has since rebuilt it.
The shelter even has "bunk beds" with an upper level for tired hikers!
We relaxed and talked for a while, using my stove to boil water for tea and coffee.  What a luxury on a day hike!  I also made some hot chocolate later.  Hawkeye and I put our meal packets directly on the hot coals and then burnt some leaves and forest junk on top to cover them with hot ashes.  Doug cooked his on the grill.
Here is Doug, about to tuck into his lunch.
And here is my lunch - potato, tomato, red pepper, carrot, and onion (from Hawkeye) with a small piece of steak.  It was delicious, if I do say so.  Hawkeye and I agreed it was the best day hiking lunch either of us could remember!
By around 1:30 it was getting cloudy, and by 2PM, we decided to pack up and leave.  We drowned the campfire and stirred the cold ashes and hit the trail.  At exactly that moment, it started to rain, and the rain increased in intensity for the entire hike out.  The trail turned muddy and sloppy, the rain soaked through my jacket - yeah, definitely time to replace it - and the temperature began to drop.  What had a been a beautiful spring-like sunny day with highs near 70 would, in less than a couple of hours be a steady rain, and about 17 hours after that back in Richmond would be temperatures in the 20's and a steady snowfall.

When we got back to the car, all fairly soaked, I had to admit that I was glad not to be camping out that night.  Instead of crawling with wet skin into a sleeping bag in a tiny tent as the temperature dropped and the snow began, I would be able to get a hot shower and sleep in a warm bed.  But the rain could not lessen the fun we all had on the hike to the Paul Wolfe Shelter!