Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Rose River Falls

Last Friday, I had the day off and it was going to be a little cooler in the mountains, so I headed to Shenandoah National Park to hike the Rose River Falls loop - actually, more of a lollipop than a loop, strictly speaking.  It is 6.5 miles and passes by two nice waterfalls: Dark Hollows and Rose River.  It's my first hike back up there since running into the bear, and I carried bear spray with me this time, since I was alone.

This hike is a good workout, and as I inexplicably forgot my trekking poles at home, it was harder than usual on my knees and hips, especially the steep downhill sections.  And my right ankle still hurts a lot, so I just went at my own pace and did the best I could.  I would have held a group up for sure.  Here is a track of the loop, arrows showing that I hiked counter-clockwise.  The Rose River Falls is marked by a purple star.

Other than the waterfalls, there is not a whole lot of scenery on the hike - it is mainly a walk in the woods.  I kept alert for wildlife, and saw a number of animals of the smaller, less spectacular types.  I thought of doing a "What am I?" for a change, but the animals that I saw were small and hard to identify.

Here are some photos along the way of my trek, starting with the first hints of fall:

I am not sure what this flowering shrub is, but I call it pretty:

Maybe not as pretty is this orb weaver.  I don't know the species, but its rear legs reminded me of candy canes.

I felt really bad for this baby cedar waxwing along the side of the trail.  It should be in a nest with parents.  I hope very much that its parents were around somewhere, but saw no sign of them.

This is Dark Hollow Falls.  It is only about 3/4 mile from the trail head, and you have to drop 500 feet from there to get here.

I don't know if this waterfall has a name or not.  It was a short way below Dark Hollow Falls.

This little fellow is a white-spotted slimy salamander.

There are two parts to the Rose River Falls.  The Upper Falls, shown here, drops about 25 feet.  The light was not right for a great photo.  See the log in the upper left?  I watched a young man walk out on it, rocks behind him and shallow pool in front, and dive in.  I was convinced that he would break his neck, because the pool could not be five or six feet deep at its deepest spot.  But he was okay.  The Lower Falls drops about 40 feet but is supposed to be quite steep and dangerous to reach, so I passed.

After a sharp climb from the falls, I reached a mellow woods road that dropped gradually for a mile or so back to just below Dark Hollow Falls.  From there, it was the steep slog back to my car.

Along the Dark Hollow Fire Road, I spotted this red admiral, and

this red-spotted purple.  (The red spots are not really apparent with this one).

Here is one more wildflower that I need to identify.  Pretty!

The last wildlife of the hike was this red-backed salamander.

Great hike!  Pretty forests and waterfalls, and lots of interesting animals, even if they were on the small side.  I hope that the poor little cedar waxwing will be all right.  By the way, it is against the law to collect animals in national parks unless you have a special permit, plus I had no way to carry the little bird safely.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Very Cool ID From the Past!

Nearly seven years ago, I was hiking in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and came across a bird of prey that had killed a kingfisher and was eating it.  The bird grabbed some of the kingfisher and flew to the top of a utility pool.  I took a long range photo into the sun but could not identify it.  You can read about the encounter here.

Fast forward seven years.  About a week ago, I've gotten involved in the Virginia Wildlife Mapping Project as a volunteer, and as part of this, you post your wildlife photos along with some data about each observation, including where they were taken.  You state what you have identified the animal as.  Then others have the chance to confirm your identification.

In the case of the bird of prey, I finally decided that it must be a red-tailed hawk.  But two other naturalists came forward and said, no, what I saw was a peregrine falcon!

So how cool is that - to have seen the rare peregrine falcon just after it successfully hunted?  I've blown up the photo I took digitally - it is very grainy but it is the best I have to share of the encounter:

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Checking Out the Ramsey Draft Wilderness

I've heard a lot about the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness just west of Staunton, Virginia, and since  we broke camp early Wednesday a week ago in West Virginia so my brother Chris could get back to Missouri, I drove right by the trailhead on the way home plenty of early enough to try a short hike and check it out.  I could quickly see that this place is not for sissies.

Wilderness areas don't get the same careful care that parks do because they are, well, wilderness.  There are no trail blazes to show one the way, and there is no trail maintenance.  If a big tree falls across the trail, deal with it.  If the trail becomes choked with vegetation, press on.  It the trail seems to disappear, figure it out, or turn around.

I knew I didn't want to try a long difficult hike.  I just wanted to do more of a scouting trip to see what it is like, and I only went about a mile up the trail along Ramsey's Draft.  Then I returned and hiked a half mile or so up another trail that started out being out of the Wilderness area.  I've read accounts that the conditions for hiking here can be confusing and very difficult, and I believe it.

Here is a track of my hike.  The red arrow indicates the mile hike up along the creek, and the blue arrow points to the closing hike up the side trail.  If I kept going along either one, I could have reached Hiner Spring, which is supposed to be a beautiful area to camp in.  But you're talking 9 to 11 miles of difficult going to get there.  Maybe I will come back and do a longer hike or a backpacking trip here, but I can see that I will have to be fully prepared for tough going.

Here are some pictures from my hike on August 24, starting with a view of Ramsey's Draft at the start of the hike.

I thought that the yellow beetle, which I need to try to identify, on the yellow flower was really

This mushroom was as large as a small dinner plate!  I wonder if it is edible, or if it would destroy your liver cells, leading to an awful death?

Hemlock is supposed to be common up here.  I know that it has been decimated in many parts of the East by the woolly adelgid, a tiny bug that came from East Asia.  Many of the huge hemlocks in Shenandoah, for example, are ghosts now.

I bet that woodpeckers love this tree!  I heard a pileated woodpecker but didn't see one.  Nor, other than that beetle and a few butterflies, did I see any wildlife.

Sometimes the trail was distinct, and other times I was not sure if the trail had crossed the stream and I was on a game trail.  Without trail marking, it is difficult to follow.  Imagine being an Indian or explorer 250 years ago here when it was true wilderness!

Sometimes the trail - if this even is the trail - was totally choked with vegetation, including thistles.  After a mile, I reached a point where I felt like the real trail had to have crossed Ramsey's Draft, and I had no idea where, so I turned back.

This is the Bridge Hollow Trail, out of the wilderness area and marked with yellow blazes (and maybe yellow mushrooms - see below).  It climbs steadily for two miles and is very easy to follow.  At that point, it connects to the Bald Ridge Trail, which goes back in the wilderness area up to Hiner Spring.  Part of me wants to try this on a 2-3 trek. Part of me says it would be tough going.

Well, my hike was short but sweet, and I at least got to check out Ramsey's Draft Wilderness a bit.  When my ankle and foot are close to 100%, I think I'd like to come back.  But you don't want to tackle this place if you are not at your game!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Back at Kumbrabow State Forest

My older brother Chris went to school in West Virginia, and he came back from Missouri for a class reunion two weekends ago.  I met him and his friend Gene for a few days of camping out in Kumbrabow State Forest after their reunion.  A week ago Monday, Chris was going to see a friend and Gene wanted to take a nap, so I went on a hike from our campsite.  I repeated the loop that I did when I was there two years ago - where I took a fall and nearly broke my arm.

This map shows the location of the forest (red circle).  The arrow points to the West Virginia border.  The forest is about 30 miles south of Elkins.

Here is the track of the Raven Rocks - Meatbox Run trail loop.  I started and ended at my campsite (circle) and traveled counter clockwise (arrows).  The hike is about 5 miles long and does some climbing to get to the top of the ridge.

Much of the trail is through dark and dense forest.  The forests here are managed by the state.  There are some impressive looking black cherry trees in the woods here.

Early in the hike are great views from Raven Rocks.  The rocks form a small ledge that juts out with quite a drop off, so I moved slowly and carefully out there.

Late on the hike, going down the steep and wet Meatbox Run Trail, where I fell two years ago, I came across these cool mushrooms.  As far as wildlife is concerned, I saw a ruffed grouse as it flushed through the forest, and I saw a wild turkey.

I avoided falling this time - yay!  Dinner that night was as good as it gets camping out - hot dogs grilled over a hardwood fire, baked beans, pickles, and Tasticake pies!

I had fun camping out.  I hardly ever get to see my brother, so that alone made it worth going - to hang out around the campfire, enjoying the amazing stars at night in the West Virginia darkness.  But getting in a hike was a nice little bonus!  Also, the weather was a bonus for this time of year - highs in the 70's and lows around 50 Fahrenheit. The mountains on the Virginia border, western Maryland, and eastern West Virginia sure have different weather than we do back in the Piedmont!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Falls

I had last Friday off, and after my bad experience the weekend before aborting the hike to Devil's Marbleyard, I wanted to "get back on the horse."  I wanted to do a hike by myself, at my own pace, and in somewhat cooler weather.  For my hike, I picked one of my favorites: the 8.0 mile Jones Run - Doyle's River Falls loop in Shenandoah National Park.

I already wrote about my too-close encounter with the black bear near the end of the hike, so in this post, I will talk about the scenery.  At the start of the hike, I discovered that I'd left my InReach on all week and the battery was dead, so I didn't capture the track.  But here is a three dimensional view of the area.  I started and ended at the arrow, descended along Jones Run to the low point where Jones Run and the Doyle's River meet, then climbed up along the Doyle's River back to the Appalachian Trail, where I returned to the car (and nearly tripped over a large black bear).  There are two loops, and for the first time in years, I took the longer one.  It loses and gains 1,800 feet, so there is a good workout along the way.

The weather was pleasant for July in Virginia, with starting temperatures in the mid-60's and highs about 75 - maybe a little warmer down in the stream valley.  It felt a lot better than my attempt at hiking five days before.  When I hike, I like to look for unusual mushrooms and other things, and I spotted these early on:

There are three different falls on this trip.  The first is Big Falls on Jones run, about 1.7 miles in.

When I took this photo of what a bear did to a log looking for grubs, I had no idea that I would be getting a great look at not one, but two, bears in a while.

Autumn is still a ways off, but not for this tulip poplar leaf!

The nicest waterfall on the hike is Lower Doyle's River Falls.  It cascades a long way in a series of steps.

I hadn't seen a soul until I got to these Falls (there is a shorter, less steep trail to them from the Skyline Drive, and they are popular.)  I asked one of them to snap a photo of me.

Between the lower and the upper falls (shown here) was where I saw the first bear.  I watched him for five or 10 minutes and I don't think he knew I was there.  He was about 100 feet away down in the stream, flipping over rocks.  You can see that the Upper Falls is two big steps, and very pretty.  It is quite different from the long, narrow chute of the Lower Falls.

I ate lunch at the Upper Falls, then kept hiking upwards.  I heard a bear back in the woods but didn't see it.  I saw a large deer about 50 feet off the trail but couldn't get a good photo.  I decided to detour a bit and check out the Doyle's River cabin of the Potomac Appalachian Mountain Club.  It is in a nice setting.  I'd love to stay here.

But if you ever do, watch where you put your feet if you come out in the middle of the night to head to the outhouse!  I didn't see any copperheads, but a couple I talked to at the falls had seen two here when they checked out the cabin site.

This beautiful butterfly was in front of the cabin.  It doesn't have to worry about copperheads.

From the cabin, I hiked uphill for about another third of a mile until I reached the Appalachian Trail.  I noted the sign warning of bear activity on the trail, little knowing that I would shortly have my own bear experience that I doubt I will forget soon.

About a tenth of mile after running into the bear, I emerged by the Skyline Drive for a moment to catch a nice look of the Doyle's River watershed.  I had been hiking deep down there just a couple of hours before.

Near the end of the hike, I passed through an open area with nice flowers.  These were loaded with bees, butterflies, and hummingbird moths.

It felt good to start and complete a hike again.  I was tired from the 8 miles and the elevation, and still excited by the meeting with the bear - and glad that it turned out okay for both of us.  I loved being back on this trail!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Bearly" Missed!

Yesterday, I had the day off and I went for an eight mile hike in Shenandoah National Park, one of my favorites - the Jones Run - Doyle's River Falls circuit.  I'll do a more complete post about the hike later, but in this post, I am focused on the wildlife.  I had a troubling experience near the end of the hike that got my heart beating and adrenaline pumping for sure.

But earlier in the hike, as I climbed the trail towards Lower Doyle's River Falls, I head the sound of rocks being flipped and so I stopped.  Eventually, a young bear - probably out on its own this year for the first time - came into view about 100 feet away.  He was flipping rocks in the steam, looking for food.  I watched him for five minutes, and don't think he knew I was there.  He was too far for a good photo, and there was a lot of vegetation, but I got these shots with my camera on maximum digital zoom.

I moved on, and later, I heard what had to be another bear flipping rocks off in the woods but couldn't see him.  Later, I spotted a deer about 50 feet off the trail in thick cover, only because it stepped on a branch and snapped it, which made me stop and look for what animal it was.

So with about a mile and a half left in my hike, I was tired.  The trail was finally fairly easy after climbing 1,800 feet, and I was cruising along, deep in thought.  I was on the Appalachian Trail, about a tenth of mile from the Doyle's River overlook.  As I stepped past a tree, I became aware of a large animal next to the tree literally five feet away from me.  It was a bear!  I hadn't seen it because the tree screened it from my angle and because I was thinking, not looking as much.  But the bear had to have heard me coming, yet it didn't move.  It was less than 2 feet from the trail and about 3 feet ahead of the point of the trail I was at.

Luckily for me, it ran away, not towards me.  But it only ran about 15 feet and turned to look at me.  I yanked out my camera - having come to an immediate stop - and snapped this kind of fuzzy photo.  Either my hands were not steady or I rushed the focus.

So then, I was thinking "What next?"  The bear was not aggressive, nor was it afraid of me.  It was much too close.  I was well within its comfort zone of 100 - 200 feet.  I put the camera away, and backed slowly down the trail, following my original direction of travel.  I am sure that it could smell the apple core, empty peanut butter cracker package, and empty cupcake package in my pack, and the small amount of mixed nuts in my pocket.  A bear has a nose that makes a bloodhound look like a little kid with a head cold, and the only thing they think about 95% of the time is food.

The bear stared at me, and neither of us made a sound.  I didn't want to turn my back - it was still much too close, by now no more that 25 feet away.  But I was afraid I would trip if I kept walking backwards, so I partially turned and continued walking slowly while still having my eyes on the bear.  As soon as I partially turned my back, the bear immediately took two steps towards me.  Not the reaction I wanted at all!  So I turned and faced him head on.  We stared at each other for about 30 seconds, then he turned slightly and trotted down the slope and crossed the trail no more than 10 - 15 feet from me!  It continued into very thick brush, walking fast but not running.  A bear can out-sprint a race horse, by the way, in case you are wondering why one should never run.

At that point, I did something just on impulse.  I whacked a tree with my trekking pools, creating a loud sound.  I hoped it would scare the bear.  But he just stopped down in the brush, maybe 50 feet away now.  At that point, I turned and walked slowly away, checking now and again behind me.

There had been signs on the trail a couple of miles in each direction talking about problem bears in the area with reduced fear of humans, and how camping was banned on this part of the trail.  I guess this guy was one of them.  A bear with this little fear of a human is not good.  If I had panicked and run, I think it likely would have charged me.  Even staying calm does not guarantee a good outcome, but in this case I had some luck.

My guess is that bears in this area have been getting food from humans, either deliberately or stuff people threw away.  The former is a terrible idea, and so is the latter because the food will have the human scent on it.  In both cases, the bear will see humans as a source of food, and the outcome can never be good.

I was hyper-alert for the rest of my hike, let me tell you!  You would have been too, right?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hot as the Devil!

I did something today that I cannot remember doing.  Maybe it means that I really am getting old!  I aborted a hike after less than a mile and a half!

The trek was with a group of seven others, and we had driven a long, long way - nearly three hours.  The goal was an 8 mile loop to see the Devil's Marbleyard - a huge boulder field of large boulders up in the mountains.  I drove two people in my car, and the trip leader drove her van with the other five.

Here is the location (yellow square), near Natural Bridge (red arrow) in western Virginia.

I knew it would be warm but usually the mountains are cooler.  Not today - it was mid-80's F. when we started hiking.  It was steady uphill but not steep.  I stopped to take a photo and was quickly at the rear of the group.  After about 1.2 miles, I stopped to get a drink.  I was drenched in sweat.  I sat down on a rock, and things just started spinning.  I felt so hot and worn out.  The trip leader was hanging with me, and everyone else had disappeared behind the bend.  I told her I was not feeling really well, so hot.  She said we could go more slowly.  Or I could turn back.  I thought for about 30 seconds.  The group as a whole was faster than the pace today that felt comfortable for me.  I was already lagging behind.  I was not feeling good, and even drinking water didn't help.  I told her I would turn back and wait at the cars.  She said that she could take the seven of them in her van.  So we agreed that I would go home, and return to the meeting spot tonight when they got there to give the two people their things that they had left in my car.

I hated to bail but it seemed like the sensible thing to do.  It literally took me about 45 minutes to feel comfortable, temperature-wise, in my air-conditioned car!  During the drive home, temperatures were 90 - 99 F.

Here is my pathetic 2.4 mile (round trip) track, in blue.  The Devil's Marbleyard, aptly named today because it felt as hot as hell, in the black circle.

Here is a satellite image of the area.  You can see that I was not too far from reaching the "marble yard."

Here are the other seven hikers at the start of the hike.

This hike goes into the James River Face Wilderness, which is in the Jefferson National Forest.

When I crossed this stream on the way back to the car, I just wanted to dive in.

The way to do this: go on a cooler day, and/or camp at one of the great sites near the trail head so you can hit the trail early before it gets too hot.

As bad as it felt to go back, I think it was the right decision for me today.  I need to do some hiking by myself for a few times to see how I do before I try group hiking again.  If I had kept going, I either would have slowed them down tremendously, or potentially put them in a situation of dealing with an ill hiker.