Sunday, March 12, 2017

Calf Mountain Group Hike

I had Friday off and led my second group hike in a week (the other being in the Great Dismal Swamp on Saturday, March 4) for the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club.  This one was from McCormick Gap to the Calf Mountain Shelter and back, a total distance of 8.7 miles. Here is the track, starting and ending at the bottom at the little blue arrow head.  The purple arrow marks Beagle Gap, and the red arrow marks Little Calf Mountain, the only real view point on the hike.  The Calf Mountain Shelter is at the purple star.  I don't know the exact elevation gain and loss, but it is a bit like a roller coaster - up and down, up and down, over Bear Den, Little Calf, and Calf Mountains, but with no extreme slopes.  I'd not hiked in the mountains for a long time, and have a lot of work to get into "trail shape."

I almost always learn something when I hike.  Friday's lesson was to double check that I pack my rain shell.  Doh!  I was lucky that it was sleet and not rain for the first mile of the hike.  The weather was all over the place, but mostly winter-like: sleet at first, then clearing skies with brutal winds and temperatures in the 30's.  Every now and again, the winds would slow and the sun would make it feel very comfortable for about two minutes.  I tried multiple combinations of clothing and could never get comfortable.  When I wore my puffy jacket, the exertion of climbing would make me soak right through my shirt.  If I took the jacket off, I would freeze in my one layer of a merino wool shirt.  The best combination was jacket on but unzipped, gloves on, and hat on and off periodically.

When I hike with a group, I take far less photos than when I am solo.  I am not fast enough to catch up with everyone if I stop too often.  With this hike, I took the sweep - the last position.  The fastest hikers are in front, and know to stop at trail junctions.  I am one of the slowest ones, and bring up the rear, and as trip leader it is my responsibility to make sure that no one gets left behind.  We started with six, and ended with six - well, one guy, a very experienced hiker, drove separately and had places to go, so he left us at the lunch break and hiked back alone.

Here is the group heading through Beagle Gap, up towards Little Calf Mountain.

I couldn't find a place to stand my camera for a remote photo, so it took two shots to get all six of us on Little Calf Mountain.


A year ago when I did this hike, the weather was socked in.  But it turns out that there are decent views from the open summit of Calf Mountain.



At the shelter, we ate lunch.  Two of us brought stoves, so any one who wanted got hot drinks.  On a cold and windy day, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a mug of hot tea, a dark chocolate bar, and a shelter out of the wind feels pretty good.

I inexplicably didn't take any photos at the lunch break.  Me, the shutterbug - I know, right?  But it was a good break, and then we started the 4.35 mile hike back, returning the way that we had come. A group of six young people - three couples - were hiking in with extremely heavy backpacks for at least one night, probably two.  I was thinking that they were going to have a cold night, certainly with temperatures near 10 degrees F.  There are times that it is really fun to camp out.  There are other times when getting home, getting a shower and a hot meal, sitting in a comfortable chair watching college basketball on TV, and sleeping in a warm, comfortable bed with a bathroom nearby feels like a better option, and for me, Friday was one of those times!

It was a fun hike with a nice group of people. The only misfortune was that one of the group sprained an ankle.  It hurt enough that he went to an urgent care facility, but let me know later that it was not broken and needed RICE - rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

I have a better sense of my only fair level of conditioning to get ready for more mountain hiking, and for a longer backpacking trip planned for the fall.  I'd better get busy!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Group Hike in the Great Dismal Swamp

A week ago Saturday, I led a group hike for the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club (ODATC) into the Great Dismal Swamp.  Sure, far from the Appalachians, but we are about hiking anywhere.  Four of us went on the hike:


This was my third hike this year to the Great Dismal Swamp.  The other two were to scout out this hike by seeing if I could find a better hike for the group than the Washington Ditch Trail to Lake Drummond.  But all of the other hikes I scouted, three in total including a hike in November, were not as appealing as the Washington Ditch, so that is the one that I chose.  Here are a series of maps showing the route.

This gives the general location of the hike, in Southeastern Virginia.  The dashed line is the state line between Virginia and North Carolina.  The arrow points to Lake Drummond, and the red circle is the location of last Saturday's hike.  The blue circle shows the location of my last scouting hike on the Hudnel and Williamson Ditch Trails.


Here is the track for the hike along Washington Ditch, to and from Lake Drummond.  Below that is the same track as a satellite image.


One of the nice things about this hike is that you can see the water in the canal and swamp for most of the way.  Here are typical views.  Much of the time, it is a fairly narrow canal with some swampy areas beyond that, but there was one portion that had been flooded by beavers that was quite wide.



Violets are already in bloom, and we saw many of them.

The day of the hike, March 3, was quite chilly.  But the recent weather has been very warm, and trees are budding and flowering all over the place.

Speaking of beaver (the second largest rodent in the world, and the largest in North America), we saw plenty of evidence.  Here are three photos - fresh beaver cuttings, a dam that is nicely convex to the upstream side (almost like an arch), and a beaver lodge:



Our turn-around point, and lunch spot, was at Lake Drummond, one of only two natural lakes in the whole state.  It is large and beautiful, and also very shallow, with an average depth of just three feet.


Along the trail, Theresa was a good citizen, and picked up the trash left by uncaring citizens:


The hike to and fro the lake is almost 10 miles, counting a little circuit we did on a boardwalk through the swamp.  I highly recommend it.  This was my third time on this trail, and my sixth time hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp.  I think our entire little group enjoyed it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The (Swamp) Path Less Taken?

I had Friday off, and I wanted to scout out one more hike in the Great Dismal Swamp.  I am leading a hike there next weekend, and there was one more route in the northwest part of the swamp

that I could check out.  It must be the path less taken, because I saw not a soul during the entire 9.7 mile hike.  I didn't see any spectacular wildlife, but there were lots of turtles, and I tabulated 14 species of bird on eBird (wood duck, great blue heron, turkey vulture, red-shouldered hawk, mourning dove, barred owl, red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, blue jay, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, American robin, gray catbird, and eastern towhee).

Here is the track, essentially a big rectangle with an out and back portion.  I hiked the rectangle counter-clockwise, starting and ending at the Jericho Ditch parking area (red circle).  The first leg of the rectangle, and the out and back portion, is the Hudnell Ditch Trail.  The short leg going north is the New Ditch Trail, and the top of the rectangle heading west is the Williamson Ditch Trail.  The final short leg, heading south, is the Jericho Ditch Trail.

I've marked the distances of each leg.  The out and back portion was actually 1.65 miles but I rounded up.  At that point, the trail is no longer maintained, and it becomes thick with vegetation.  Can you spell "ticks?"  So I turned back.  You could do a hike of just over six miles by just walking the rectangle.

Hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp is always fascinating.  But for this route, there is almost always thick vegetation between the pathway and the water that lines both sides of the track.  So you usually can't see the water.  You can hear turtles, ducks, and other wildlife diving into the water or taking flight as you walk along, but you can't see them (usually).  So that was one thing I didn't like about this hike.

One of the first things that I saw was these four turtles, yellow bellied sliders or red cooters, I think, catching rays on this very spring-like February day.

Speaking of spring, here is one more sign.  Spring has come very early to these parts of Virginia.  It is actually kind of crazy.  We have had 8 days this month in Richmond where the temperatures have gotten above 70, which is unheard of.

On each side of the pathway is a strip of water, but at least in this part of the swamp, the vegetation is so thick that you can hardly ever see it.

Along the way, I saw some butterflies, like this question mark, and this tiny hairstreak:


Remember that 1.65 mile out-and-back spur?  Here is what the trail looks like as you walk along:

and here is what the trail looks like at the turn-around point.

I reversed course and got back to the southeast corner of the rectangle, and had a lunch break.  While there, I spotted a log in the water with six turtles on it, and crept up for a photo.  All of them plopped into the water except this one brave one.  I am having trouble identifying him:

Another creature I found was this salamander, which I think is a southern dusky salamander.  I found a total of three salamanders on the hike.

When I got to the junction of the Williamson Ditch and Jericho Lane trails, with less than a mile to go, I got a surprise.  The trail was totally cut out.  At first I thought I would have to wade through the muddy ditch, but there was one dry area, so I slide down, walked across, and clambered up the other side.

Beats wading across something like this, eh?

This is the first hike (out of five total) that I've done in the Great Dismal Swamp where I didn't see at least one of these - otter, bobcat, or black bear - although I did see lots of bear and coyote scat.  But I still saw plenty of wildlife, and enjoyed a gorgeous spring day well away from the office.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Scouting the Swamp

I want to lead another hike into the Great Dismal Swamp, and so my first hike of 2017 was a scouting trip to find a good route.  Alas, the hike I took is not one I would lead a group on.  After 3.6 miles, the route was flooded and overgrown, and I turned back.  But I still had a good day outside, and even saw an otter early in the hike.

The last time I was here, I started the hike from the same point.  But two months ago, I was hiking on Lynn Ditch, and this time I went down Jericho Ditch.  Here is a map showing the location, in the Northwest part of the Swamp.

And this shows my track along Jericho Ditch, starting and returning to the blue arrow.  If you venture off the path, you are going to get soaked, tied up in dense vegetation, and possibly lost.  I did not venture off the path.

My hike was not very eventful, but it was good to be outside.  I did see the otter, and a couple of birds, and lots of bear scat.  I walked down the pathway, encountered the flooded area, and gave up and turned back.  I was walking about 3 hours, or maybe a bit less.  Most of the time, the path looks like this, with water on each side.


Less than a mile into the hike was this little structure, which reminded me of a bus stop. I wonder if it were some kind of bird banding station?  There is a big birding festival here in April.  I saw the otter very close to this point.

At my turnaround point was this old abandoned fire tower.

At that point was a large group of turkey vultures.

There was bear scat like this all along the trail.  Clearly, bears were not hibernating in this part of the world.  Unlike my last trip here, I didn't see a bear.

I've ruled out taking a group on this hike.  It was too short.  But I do have another area to scout out on my next foray in this area, so we will see what that is like soon enough.  It sure felt good to be out in the woods again.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Westmoreland's "Woodpecker Woods"

On Friday, December 16 - a very cold day - I did a four mile hike in Westmoreland State Park, mostly along the Turkey Neck Trail.  But I am going to call it "Woodpecker Woods," because I saw five different kinds of woodpecker - downy, pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, and flicker.  I like hiking in almost any kind of weather, including the cold, although I could have used an extra layer at times.  The high temperature there was about 27 F.

Here is the route of my hike, starting and ending at the blue triangle, and hiking counter-clockwise:


And here is a satellite view of the area, along with my route.  Note the forested wetland along the eastern-most part of the hike.

Most of the park is fairly mature hardwood forest, with lots of beech.

This looks like a field but is actually a wetland of some type.  It was not real wet at this particular time.

This part had some standing water.

The park borders the Potomac River, and for part of it, has dramatic sandy cliffs.  Fossil shark teeth are often found here.  The area was closed because of the risk of the cliffs collapsing.  Getting buried alive was not in my plans for the day, so I chose to follow the rules on the sign.

I saw this little group of buffleheads (a type of duck) in the river near the cliffs.


This was a fun hike and I saw a lot of birds, and even a couple of mammals, enough to write a "What am I?" post or two later.  It's been over a decade since I hiked here, but I'll be back for sure, next time with a better camera to get animal photos.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Black Bear Friday

On "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, most people head to the malls.  Not me!  I followed REI's advice and went for a hike - in the Great Dismal Swamp in Southeastern Virginia. I want to lead another hike for the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club there and was scouting out the hike.  I hiked in the NW portion of what is left of the swamp, which is a fraction of its original size due to development.  My goal was to do a circuit along the dike trails, or "ditches" as they are called.  The ditches were dug mainly by slave labor.


Now they are no longer maintained but allow for the slow flow of water along them, and there are foot / bicycle paths running along their lengths to some extent.  My route was in the Jericho Ditch area, specially along Lynn Ditch to Middle Ditch.  However, Middle Ditch was so choked with thick vegetation after about a mile that I turned back.

Here are the images of my track, starting at the circle and turning back at the arrow.  I hiked for a total of just over 10 miles.

Here is a satellite image of the hike.  You can see the development just outside the swamp.  You don't want to venture off the paths here.  It would be a miserable and dangerous slog through the swamp.

Early in the hike, I ran into three men bicycling with three dogs running along, and then a solitary hiker.  They were the only people I saw until I was nearly back at the car.  People tend to park and go for short walks here.  The hiker was returning and showed me a photo of a bear paw print that he had taken.  I thought that was pretty cool, and wondered if I would be lucky enough to see a bear - at a little distance this time!

The paths along the ditches are straight as arrows here.

This is what Lynn Ditch looks like.

I liked the reflection of the shrub in the water.

This large pine tree stood alone by Middle Ditch.

So, for a while, Middle Ditch was just fine, and I wondered would it would be like to complete the circuit.  I was carefully keeping track of each turn and the distances so I could lead the hike appropriately.  Here is what it looked like for the first 3/4 mile,

then it started slowly getting more and more choked with vegetation -

and finally, it was like this: essentially impassible.

So, I reluctantly turned around and made the loop hike an "out and back."  I'm glad I learned this before I led a group here, which is the whole idea behind doing a hike yourself before making it a group hike.

Right as I turned around, I saw this interesting little animal.  It did not move away as I got closer, seemingly secure in its camouflage.  A naturalist friend tells me that is is a Long-headed toothpick grasshopper!

Fall was still in the air in late November, as in evidence by these lovely leaves:

This was my third hike in the Great Dismal Swamp, and even though I don't enjoy hiking with binoculars around my neck, I've learned to do so here because I tend to see animals at a distance in the straight pathways.  The first time, it was a group of four river otters.  The second time, it was a bobcat - or perhaps a fox, but our group voted bobcat.  And this time, as I headed back up along the Lynn Ditch, I spotted a dark spot in the path a long ways away - maybe 1/3 kilometer or so.  I glassed it, and it was a black bear!  I used the extreme zoom in my camera to get a photo, and then slowly walked towards it.

The bear did not seem to have detected me.  It moved back and forth across the path, like it was investigating food sources.  At times, it would stop that behavior and walk towards me.  Eventually, I was able to get a better shot (this is still digitally zoomed).

After about 10 minutes, the bear was still well over 100 meters away, and it must have detected me, because it moved off the path and disappeared.  It would have had to swim across the ditch.  When I got to that point in the trail, there was no evidence that I could detect that a bear had ever been there, much less a few minutes before.  While not as exciting as my last bear encounter, I prefer this type - from a bit of a distance.

I am always grateful to see wildlife, and hiking in this area has never disappointed me.  On the way out, I passed a pair of turkey vultures high up in a tree.


Maybe the malls were crowded and even a little dismal on Black Friday, but Black Bear Friday in the Great Dismal Swamp was anything but!  I'll have to go back soon to scout another trip so I can choose the best one for the ODATC.