Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Just a Number

Although 60 is not the new 30 - no matter who says what - it is true that age is just a number.  Exhibit A: look at the photo below.  It probably does not look remarkable - two men on a trail in the mountains.

Now, look again - the mountain in the back is Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi and north of North Carolina.  It is a tough slog up there - trust me!  Look at the men - the guy in the orange hat is my friend Dick.  He is 89 and a half, and at the end of the second day of a three day hike up there last week with his grandson.  He goes every year, and plans on doing it when he is 100.  I plan on joining him on that one!

Exhibit B.  Well, I think Exhibit A is enough.  No matter your age, enjoy life and do things while you can, because some day, there is a guarantee for every single one of us that we will no longer be able to do the same things, or anything for that matter.  So get out there and enjoy the beautiful things in nature every chance you get.

Seven years ago, by the way, it was my younger brother and I that made this trip with Dick.  Strolling down memory lane, here are a few photos from July 2007.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Riprap Hollow Hike

So, you say it's too hot to go for a hike in the summer?  Well, what if I told you of a place that was so cold, it will literally take your breath away for a few seconds?  All you need to do is get there over nearly 10 miles of mountain trails (and, yes, you will be hot for a good bit of it).

Riprap Hollow in Shenandoah National Park is one of my all-time favorite hikes.  I have been many times, and never tire of it.  In July 2003, it was my first post-cancer hike.  I was finished with chemotherapy for about 8 months at that point.  I was still feeling some of the effects of my six months on chemo, and it was really hard at times to do that hike that year.  But no matter - I was healthy and out hiking again.  I will always remember the feeling of joy for being able to do this again after being so ill, and I will always remember the two bear cubs that I encountered deep into the hike.  One raced up a steep slope, and the other zipped up a tree.  I resolved to hike to Riprap Hollow every year as a celebration of being healthy once more, and as a reminder that we need to seize the day whenever we can.  And for seven more years, I did this hike every year.

Then 2011 arrived.  I was dealing with very painful plantar fasciitis while trying to prepare for the 60 mile long 3-day breast cancer walk.  I skipped the hike.  2012 arrived, and I was trying to reach a goal of hiking 10 new places.  I skipped the hike.  Ditto 2013, 10 more new places, hike to Riprap Hollow skipped.  This year, I resolved to hike to Riprap Hollow again, and the perfect opportunity arrived when the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club announced a hike to this magical place for yesterday.  How could I not go?

I had not been involved with the ODATC for a number of years, but joined once more this past March, and this was my first hike with them.  It was billed as the "Larry Murtaugh Memorial Hike and Swim."  I didn't know Larry, but while on the hike, I learned about him and his untimely and unexpected death four years ago.  Many of my fellow hikers knew Larry from outings, and his widow was along for the hike in her husband's memory.

Eleven of us made the hike, and two more joined us for part of it on their own schedule.  Here is a photo of the group, sans the hike leader, Randy, who was taking the photo, and the two latecomers about three miles in on the trail.

It has been a while since I hiked with a group.  Usually, my party size is one, two, or three.  So I had forgotten what fun it is to hike with a group of people who share this interest of being on foot in the great out of doors.  I'll be joining in again.

Here is a map of the hike's track.  We started out and ended at the lower right, at the Wildcat Ridge Parking Area on the Skyline Drive.  The elevation at that point is 2,980 feet.  And we hiked the circuit counter-clockwise, heading north on the Appalachian Trail for about three miles, then heading west and south on the Riprap Hollow Trail, before the long slog up the Wildcat Ridge Trail back to the car.

Here is an elevation profile of the 9.6 or so mile hike.  The total elevation loss and gain is about 2,800 feet, so you get a great cardio-vascular workout.  It is too much for some people.  One guy on our trip, "Mountain Goat," was a good Samaritan and shuttled two separate groups back to their cars at the Riptap Hollow Trail head.  They were too worn out to complete the hike, and he saved them 2.7 miles of hiking.

I have plenty of photos of this hike in past blog posts, including my most recent 2010 hike to Riprap Hollow.  So I won't go crazy with additional photos from yesterday, but am posting some of them.

Here are a few of the group hiking early in the day along the "Green Tunnel" of the Appalachian Trail.  Compared to my hike just a week before in the White Rock Falls area, the weather was about 10 degrees warmer and much more humid, so the shade for much of the Riprap hike felt pretty good.

When I come to this section of the Riprap Hollow Trail, I always expect to find a timber rattlesnake, but never do.  I did see a nice rattler on this hike about 10 years ago, which was really great!

There are a couple of viewpoints on this hike, but with the haze, the views were not great yesterday.  This one is at the Cavalry Rocks on the Riprap Hollow Trail.

Some of group relax and enjoy the view at Chimney Rocks.  This is right across a deep valley from where I camped a few years ago on the second night of my Trayfoot Mountain trip.

Once we reached Cold Spring Hollow, a nice stream was flowing along with some small cascades.  It is always cooler down in this area.  The terrain is very rugged, with steep slopes on each side of the trail.  I have seen black bear in this area of the hike twice, but not yesterday.

Remember when I said that there is a spot that will take your breath away?  Here it is!  No matter how hot the day is, when you plunge in this deep pool at Riprap Hollow, you will hyperventilate for a few seconds.  At least I always do!  I have hiked here at least 10 times.  Sometimes I have had the pool to myself, but usually there are at least a few others here.  Sometimes, like yesterday, there are lots of people.  But the water is cold enough that most don't stay in for long.  When I took this photo, there were at least 20 other people here, but no one was in at this moment.  It is such a beautiful spot!

If you were here, would you take the plunge?  As our trip leader said in his pre-trip email, "the highlight of the day will be taking a dip in its classic swim hole - just as Larry would have done. Bring your water shoes and towel, and to keep in the spirit of this event, total submersion will be required."  I complied fully with this directive!

I don't know enough about mushrooms to know what this is, but I saw several of them.  Perhaps they are tasty, perhaps they are deadly.  If I had to guess, and bet my life on the guess, I would go with the latter.

If you go back to the elevation profile, you can see that from Riprap Hollow and that refreshing swim, the rest of the hike is pretty much uphill back to the car.  On a hot day, that cold water dip is quickly forgotten as you hike uphill and sweat everything you are wearing to the soaking point.  It is always a reminder that my level of conditioning needs to improve.  But unless you could find someone to carry you back up - no one in my group volunteered - you need to put one foot after the other continually until you get to the top.

We ended this fun day in Larry's memory with cold beers and Mexican food at Guadalajara Restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia.  It sure was a great day with a great group of folks!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

White Rock Falls and Upper Sherando Lake

Yesterday was just a gorgeous summer day here in the Old Dominion, and I decided to go up to the mountains for a hike.  I hiked in a place that I have hiked several times, but not in the last 10-15 years: the White Rock Falls / Slacks Overlook Loop, with a side trip to Upper Sherando Lake thrown in for good measure.  My 9.6 miles means that I am up to 80 (non-urban) trail miles for the year so far.  This could also be my last hike as a 62 year old.

This delightful hike is off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Originally, I thought of going back to Shenandoah National Park, but on a three day holiday weekend, I thought it was likely to be crowded.  I think I made the right choice: other than when I got close to Sherando Lake, with its large campground and day use area, I saw only six other people (and a dog) on the trail.  Here is a view of the hike's track.  I started and ended at the blue star on the Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 18.5.  The loop portion of the hike, about 5 miles in length, was hiked clockwise.  When I got to the junction on the trail when I could go to the car and make it just a five mile hike, I turned north instead and hiked downhill to Upper Sherando Lake.  It was a perfect spot for lunch.  Then, I hiked back to the car from there.

Here is the elevation profile for most of the hike.  There were a few strenuous climbs but nothing like my last hike out of White Oak Canyon.  The grade was generally not punishing, although I did stop to rest and enjoy views at a few points.

With almost two miles left to go on my hike back out, my GPS gave me a false warning that the battery was dying, so I saved the track and then started a new one.  Therefore, the last 1.8 miles are recorded with a different profile.  Total elevation gain and loss was about 2,400 feet, so I got a good workout without killing myself.  This compares with 3,400 feet gained and lost on the White Oak Canyon hike four weeks ago.

My hike started with a descent through a dark and pleasant forest, eventually crossing a stream (which I enjoyed the "music" of for some time.)

In about a mile and a half, I reached White Rock Falls via a short and steep side trail.  The water is a bit low this time of year, and the falls at their best would be a pale comparison to the many cascades seen during my hike up White Oak Canyon, but it was still a pretty spot.

After climbing steadily, a short side trail led to this massive rock and cliff.  I continually kept alert for rattlesnakes, both here and elsewhere along the trail.

Not far from this point, I reached the only real views of the entire hike, and they were lovely.  If you ever wondered how the Blue Ridge Mountains got their name, wonder no more.  It was near here on a hike with friends many years ago - over 15, I believe - that we encountered the largest rattlesnake I have ever seen.  He watched us warily, and we studied him for a while, then left him in peace to continue his life.  Hopefully, most others will do the same when encountering a snake in the wild.

My pack was light, so I carried two liters of water, and finished the hike with maybe a cup of water.  I could have carried less and filtered water at many points, such as this stream crossing.  But it made sense to just pack it in.  At this point, I found a tiny salamander under a rock in the stream.

After crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway and getting on the Slacks Overlook Trail, the rest of the hike was fairly easy - mostly level or gentle uphills and downhills through the woods.  At this point, I saw where pileated woodpeckers have had a field day with this tree.

Eventually, I came to Upper Sherando Lake and had a nice lunch while sitting on a bench on a fishing dock.  What luxury while out for a hike!  There were lots of people about here, including a number day hiking up the trail as I hiked down to the lake.  I also saw a little water snake while eating my lunch.  I think this is a northern water snake.

Here is a view of Upper Sherando Lake, taken from the earthen dam that holds the water back.  The lake (we would have called it a pond in Maine) is fairly small, and is popular with fishermen and women.  It was a great spot to relax in the sun for a half hour and have lunch.

From here, it was a steady uphill climb of 2.5 miles or so back to the car.  But at no time was the climb really steep.  It was a nice way to end a really fun hike on a beautiful summer's day!

Friday, July 4, 2014

How am I Doing with my 2014 Hiking Goals?

Happy Independence Day!  Hurrah for the Red, White, and Blue!

At the start of the year, I set some hiking goals for myself for 2014.  With the year now half over, I wanted to assess how I am doing on these.  Here is my report.

Hike 8 new places this year - I've done 7 and should hit 8 tomorrow!  On track!

Hike 5 times in Shenandoah National Park or the area.  I've done two hikes there this year, one in the park and one just south.  So I am little behind.  But I should reach # 3 tomorrow to get back on track.

Hike in two states not hiked in during 2013, and one of these must be a state I have never hiked in.  I hiked in West Virginia in April, a state I never have hiked in before.  So I am partway there.

Hike in a foreign country.  I went hiking in Scotland in May.  That goal is reached.

Volunteer to lead a hike.  Not yet, behind schedule.

Go backpacking three times.  I have done two trips, a one-nighter by myself in Laurel Forks, and a three nighter in the Cranberry Wilderness of West Virginia.  So I am on track with this goal.

Practice navigation (without a GPS) and orienteering.  No progress on this goal.

Hike at least 110 trail miles.  I am up to 69, so am on track to pass that mark and plan on it.

Keep this blog going.  Yup, doing that.

So overall, I am doing well but really shirking on two goals.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Stirling, Scotland Walk-About

Time to finish up my posts about my walks and hikes in Scotland.  This walk took place on May 24.

After seeing the William Wallace Monument, we wanted to visit the famous Bannockburn Battlefield, but it turned out that there was a big parade on the way and traffic would be impossible.  So instead, the lassies decided to relax at the motel, and the laddies decided to walk about Stirling for a couple of hours.  It was mostly urban but we also found a nice park along the way, high up in this hilly city and near the Stirling Castle that we had spent the morning touring.

We parked at a car park near the train station, crossed the river on the tall pedestrian bridge, and started walking along the streets of Olde Stirling.

Here is another view of the Wallace Monument in the distance, several miles as the crow flies.

After walking through the city for a good ways, we came on a wild looking and inviting city park, and began hiking some of the trails.  There were a few people about, mostly young lovers - ah, is there anything like being young and in love in the spring time? - and one very friendly border collie.

We spied these cannon high up on a hill, and decided to walk up.  I thought that the beheading stone might be in that general area, and wanted to see it (but not try it out).

As we walked along the trail, my brother-in-law said "Do you smell that minty smell?"  The edges of the path were thick with the plant shown below, and I decided to rub it between my thumb and forefinger to release the minty odor.  Big mistake!  In a split second, my fingers felt as if I had touched a red-hot stove!  They hurt for a good 12 hours and didn't feel right for 24 hours.  This turns out to be stinging nettle.  My brother-in-law, who was reaching for the plant, was thankful that I was a little bit quicker than he was.

At the top of the hill, near the pair of cannon, was the beheading stone.  It is no longer in use.

Here is a panoramic view of Stirling - the new part to the left - from the top of the hill in the park.

The cannon stand silent guard on the hilltop.

As we looped back towards the old part of the city through the park, we caught a view of Stirling Castle.

Later that evening, we had dinner at this restaurant.  The courtyard looks so inviting, but it was raining later on.  I tried to convince my brother-in-law to have an ale at several places along our walk - with me buying - but he declined, saying that he would have a Guinness with dinner.

As we returned to the city and headed back towards the train station and the car park, we came along another pair of old cannon.

The next day, we would be leaving Bonnie Scotland to head home to the US of A.  It had been a great trip, but I wish we had had more time there.  Still, we packed a lot into our eight days in this lovely and friendly country.  I hope someday to return.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

William Wallace Memorial near Stirling

OK, back to bonny Scotland for just a wee bit more!  This walk happened Saturday, May 24.

Was walking to the top of the William Wallace Memorial at Stirling a hike?  Well, not really, although we did walk up the trail - about 10 minutes each way, uphill on the way up, then downhill on the way down - just to get to the monument, and then there were the 280 or so steps to the top.  So I did enough walking to at least write about this monument, which is near Wallace's signature victory against the English Army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

Ever see the movie "Braveheart?"  Well, I hadn't, but I have since rectified this omission after returning from Scotland.  I know that Mel Gibson's epic was a movie, and that it took a lot of literary license, but it also had much factual material, and it made me glad I was never a Medieval soldier.

This is a view of the Wallace Monument from several miles away near Stirling Castle. It is very Gothic and can be seen from almost anywhere in the area.  You can see that it is built at the top of a tall hill.

Here is what the pathway looks like on the way up to the monument.  You can also ride a free bus up there. Would I do that?  Maybe in a few more decades.  Maybe....  There are several miles of additional trails that can be hiked if one chooses.  If it had not inconvenienced the others, I would have likely walked a few more miles exploring the woodlands here.  It is a beautiful spot.

Two thirds of the way up was this nice pastoral view.

Miles away, you can see Stirling Castle, which we had toured for several hours that morning.  It is fascinating.

Wallace is one of Scotland's most revered heroes.  Here is a likeness sculpted part way up his monument.

He must have been incredibly strong to have wielded a sword like this one, a replica of his Claymore.  I mean, you could have stood in upstate New York and stabbed someone in New Hampshire with this thing!

Here's a depiction of William Wallace in stained glass near the top of the monument, which has several rooms with exhibits as you climb the spiraling staircase.

From the very top is a large viewing platform.  Here is part of the mostly pastoral view.

And here is a panoramic view from the top.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought right in that section of the river, back a bit from the foreground.

Wallace was a brave man, and he paid for his bravery and his convictions with an absolutely horrific and unimaginably cruel death at the hands of the English as their prisoner in 1305, eight years after his historic and still remembered victory at this place.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cedar Run and White Oak Canyon Loop SNP

If it were a picture-perfect late spring day, which would you choose?  (a) Going into work, sitting in your little cube all day answering emails, trying to meet deadlines, and going to meetings, or (b) Taking a hike in the mountains along beautiful streams, seeing interesting wildlife, and getting your butt kicked on the steady, relentless, uphill hike out?  If (b) is not a no-brainer, then please review the choices again!

I had last Friday off, and I choose (b) - without hesitation!  I selected a hike that I had done about 18 years ago and not since, the Cedar Run - White Oak Canyon circuit hike in Shenandoah National Park.  It was an absolutely perfect day.  How perfect?  Well, the normal hazy conditions up in the Blue Ridge were not in evidence.  I took this photo from the Skyline Drive, because I knew I would not have many views on the hike, and you can see how clear it is - click the photo to see an enhanced view:
I remembered a couple of things from taking this hike back in the 1990's: the streams were beautiful, and the hike out is a bear!  And I remembered correctly.  I was very tired at the end, and came out with the realization that I need to work out more.  But I had a great day, hiking along cascade after cascade and seeing wildlife.  Before I even got to the trail head, I saw five deer and a pileated woodpecker flew across the road at practically windshield level.  But the best wildlife sighting of the entire day (and maybe for the entire year to come) was this on the Skyline Drive.  And the wildlife sightings continued on the hike - within the first mile, I got a great look at this creature.  And I had a baby snake - either a rattlesnake or a copperhead - strike at my foot before it squirmed under a rock before I could nab a photo.

You can tell that this is a tough hike by looking at the topographical map of the day, and at the elevation profile.  The track for the hike is the circular route on the left.  I hiked counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise as they say in Scotland).  The track to the upper right is from my Robertson Mountain hike last year, and Old Rag is also near by.  I descended on the Cedar Run Trail, climbed out on the White Oak Canyon Trail, and shortened my original plans by 1.5 miles by hiking back to the car on an old fire road.

Yeah, the elevation profile does not lie!  You will know that you have quads at the end of this hike.  And if you don't have quads, you will spend the night on the trail whimpering until you feel strong enough to finish hiking out.  In 8.8 miles of hiking, there were very few level sections.  Mile 4-5, where you connect from the Cedar Run Trail to the White Oak Canyon Trail, is fairly level.  And the last half mile is more or less level.  Total elevation loss and gain is about 3,300 feet, and from the low to the high point is a difference of about 2,200 feet.
The dominant colors on this hike are green (the forest) and blue (the water).  I was hiking along one stream or another for about five miles of the hike.  I loved the sounds the streams make as they dropped on their way to the Chesapeake Bay.  But I also liked the chance, when away from them, to listen to the calls of forest birds - wood thrush, Eastern wood peewee, and oven birds were much in evidence, along with many others.  This is near the start of the hike, quiet Appalachian woodlands before I reached the beginnings of Cedar Run.

It was very clear that a bear was grocery shopping here.  I didn't see any bears while hiking, but you might want to check out the wildlife sightings referenced earlier in this post!

I'd forgotten what a gorgeous stream Cedar Run is.  It does not have the dramatic falls that White Oak Canyon has.  But it has a seemingly infinite variety of small cascades.  Here are three examples: water flowing over a rock face,

a natural water slide into a refreshing pool,

and two small waterfalls, one above the other.  Because of all the water, I only carried a one liter bottle and used my filter twice to refill it.  This kept my day pack weight to 16 pounds, and I could easily have lightened that by leaving emergency gear, fleece, and rain jacket behind.  None of that was needed, but do you think I would have felt foolish (and cold) if I had sprained an ankle and ended up spending a night alone in the woods without any gear like that?

The Cedar Run Trail is mostly steep, rough, and rocky.  You can see a typical section here.  As tough as the hike up White Oak Canyon is, I think it would have been even tougher to hike out up this trail.  There are very few switchbacks.  It just picks it way up through the rocks.  My trekking poles were invaluable on the descent, saving wear and tear on my knees.  I swear by them!

After the rough and tumble descent, it felt really good to hike for nearly a mile along a quiet forest pathway.  I liked hearing all of the birds.  I saw a number of birds on the hike, but often could not hear them because of the stream.

Soon enough, I came to White Oak Run.  There is easy access to the lower part of this stream from another trail head, so I started seeing lots of people, including some fly fishermen.  It was near this spot that I had the little snake strike at me and vibrate his tail.  Because it was under a rock and quickly disappeared, I could not get a positive ID.  Initially I thought it was a rattlesnake, but now I am thinking copperhead.  Whichever, it was not worth losing a finger or hand to turn the rock over to find it and get a better view.

There were four major falls on the hike up the Canyon.  These next two photos are the two falls that make up Lower White Oak Falls.

After a lot of climbing, I had partial views over White Oak Canyon.

After this, with a lot more climbing, I came on the second big waterfall,

and above that, the water just rushed through chutes like this.

Next, after more climbing, was the third of the four large falls.

I thought I would throw in a close up of the trail track so you can see some of the many switchbacks!  What a work out!

Here is a section of one of the switchbacks, with some nice rock work by the Shenandoah National Park trail crews.  It was kind of like climbing a steep, seemingly endless set of stairs.

Finally, my efforts got me a partial view of the biggest falls of them all, the Upper White Oak Falls.  It is about 90 feet tall and in a very inaccessible part of the canyon.  Vegetation obscured the view somewhat, but it would have been dangerous to try for a clearer view.

It was at this point that I decided to save some time and distance by hiking out on the fire road.  It was still steadily uphill most of the way out, but not as steep and not nearly as uneven as the trails.

I had a great time, but was very tired, and very happy to reach my car!  I still had a 2.5 hour drive home, and that is not easy when you are tired.  This hike was another wake-up call that I need to improve my conditioning, which is decent, but not up to snuff for doing this kind of hike without feeling whipped at the end.  But it is a great hike if you are relatively fit - you can't beat the cascades and falls!