Sunday, April 23, 2017

Hiking and Birding at False Cape

It felt good to be back here at False Cape State Park.  I'd hiked in the day before (April 7) and slept well in my new tent - and had pancakes for breakfast!  Now, it was time to go for a day hike and look for birds.  My friend Carlton and I both like to watch birds, although he is better at identification than I am - so I try to learn from him.  We ended up recording something like 50 species that Saturday.

Our route was south towards North Carolina, and then a "box" shape out to the beach and back around, a total of about 11 miles.  The purple arrow shows the location of the beautiful South Inlet.  There is an observation platform there, and we saw a couple of bald eagles and a northern harrier (marsh hawk) while we were there.

Here is Carlton snapping a photo of the harrier:

As we hiked along, we watched and listened constantly.  Birds were out all over the place.  One of the prettiest was this prairie warbler, which was in the live oaks over our tents, keeping us entertained with his merry song (photo by Carlton):

The route we hiked went through maritime forests, dunes, and the beach itself:




After hiking, we stopped at the little store at the park and bought ice cream and Gator Aid.  Ice cream while backpacking is an amazing luxury, and hit the spot.  Then, I took a little snooze back at the tent to rejuvenate myself for more hiking in the evening.

After my delicious - not kidding here, it really was - dinner of lentils, rice, and Indian spice,

we decided to go out again and see what birds we could see and hear.  We ended up hiking another 3.5 miles, and saw and heard plenty.  The coolest sight was a pair of red-tailed hawks sharing an unfortunate creature as a meal, and a flock of about 30 glossy ibis flying in for the night.  The moon was nearly full,

and the fading light of the day illuminated the marshes as we walked along:

As the light faded entirely, we began to hear the sounds of the night - a pair of great horned owls at first.  We headed that way, and suddenly, we heard the faint cry of a whip-poor-will and then of a chuck-will's-widow.  We walked along a path in the woods until we could hear the chuck-will's-widow better.  The moon was so bright that we didn't need headlights at all.  Suddenly, a large group of coyotes started howling and making a loud ruckus.  We hiked back to camp, as a screech owl joined into the chorus.  At camp, I fell asleep listening to the whip-poor-will call.  I'd not heard one, or a chuck-will's-widow, in over a decade, so it was a thrill.  In the middle of the night, I awoke to coyotes howling again, and at the dawn, I awoke to the call of a whip-poor-will.  It was wonderful.

Carlton packed up and was on the trail by 7:00 Sunday morning, but I took my time, enjoyed breakfast, and got hiking about 9:00.  I would have liked to go to church on this Palm Sunday, but decided that I was in God's Cathedral all weekend.  It was an uneventful hike out, although I did get close to a turkey vulture, and got to see turtles sunning themselves on the warmest day of the three by far.


I had a great time camping out, hiking, and exploring for wildlife.  I hope to get back here again in the fall or next spring.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Seven Minus Six Plus One Equals Two

A couple of months ago, I organized a backpacking trip to False Cape State Park, down in Southeast Virginia on the North Carolina border.  I immediately got six people to sign up, and was very happy about that.  Then two dropped out, then two more.  Seven had become just three. I collected the money from the couple that remained, reserved the site, and contacted them on Monday before the trip to set up final arrangements.  "Sorry, hiked 40 miles this weekend doing the AT through Maryland," she said.  "Ankle is swollen, Achilles tendon is sore.  Have to drop out!"

So, down to just me.  But I contacted a friend, and he was able to join me - even though he nearly had to drop at the last minute when his boss wouldn't give him that Friday off.  They compromised, he left work a couple hours early, and hiked into the campsite just at dark.  This was Friday, April 7.  I'd started hiking about 12:30 and even though it was incredibly windy, had enjoyed the hike in, set up my new tent, done some bird watching, and had eaten dinner by the time Carlton got there.

Here is where we were,  The top part, above the red line, is the hike in Friday and out Sunday.  Below the red line is where we hiked Saturday.  The state line is indicated by the dashed line (and arrow). The park is part of a narrow barrier beach with the Atlantic Ocean to the East and Back Bay to the West.  It's a wonderful place to hike and camp.


The hike in through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is always interesting.  Due to the cold and windy conditions Friday, I didn't see any snakes or turtles, but did see a number of birds, starting with these American coots:

Most of the hike in is through open marshes, but eventually, you reach a pleasant maritime forest to hike though with pines and live oaks.

When you get to the park, it is maybe another mile and a quarter to the campsite.  We camped near the ocean.

I loved these red maple seeds on the way to camp.

After setting up my tent, I went down to the beach.  About five miles down the beach is North Carolina, with its "McMansions."  I am glad that Virginia protected our beaches here from that kind of development.

Because it was a nice level hike in, and I was camping from a base camp, I carried in a little extra gear, including a small fry pan to make pancakes for breakfast.  And of course, what are pancakes without maple syrup? So I packed in a little of that as well.  It hit the spot!

Next post: Saturday's 14 miles of day hiking and bird watching (and listening).




Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Tent

I'm planning a seven night backpacking trip this fall where weight and comfort will be of supreme importance, and I decided that I need to spend a little money to do a gear makeover.  One thing I've learned about backpacking is that less is more - we spend more money to save weight.  And I decided to start with my tent.

I've had my Eastern Mountain Sports Velocity 1-person tent for about six years now.  It has been a great little tent, but it always feels like I am sleeping in a coffin.  The tent with its footprint (a little ground cloth that snaps to the bottom of the tent to extend its life) weights about 3.2 pounds.  It is 24 inches wide at one end, 20 inches wide at the other end, and about seven feet long.  There is no room to bring any gear in, other than clothing - which gets stuffed at the bottom of the tent next to my feet.

After research and thought (and saving up money), I bought a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 Platinum two person tent.  I think the Platinum refers to the cost!  It was  very expensive, but my REI 20% coupon on any one full price item was a big help this year.  This tent, with the footprint, weighs 3.0 pounds, or a tiny bit less than my other tent.  Yet, it gives more than twice the space for less weight!

I used the new tent last weekend for the first time on two nights of camping out after backpacking into False Cape State Park, and love it so far.  I can set it up in minutes, and it is extremely comfortable.  There is a large door and vestibule on each side.  With just me sleeping in there, it is like a palace, yet there is room for a second person if it ever came to that.  (I have better odds of winning the lottery than of having my wife join me on a backpacking trip, but I am hoping to take my granddaughter camping this summer).  There is room to bring gear into the tent, and there is room to put my pack under one vestibule while using the other for entry and exit.  I think that I'm really going to like this tent.  Next up - a new and lighter sleeping pad.

This tent is a "three season" tent, meaning it is OK for spring, summer, and fall.  The tent itself has a waterproof "bathtub style" bottom, and mesh walls and ceilings.  This allows moisture from one's breathing to go right out into the air, and not condense on the walls and rain down during the night.  On a clear, warm night, one could sleep in the tent just like this, and look at the stars.


However, most of the time, you would put the waterproof rain fly over the tent.  That not only gives rain protection, but also some warmth.  The nights I was camping, it got to about 40 degrees, so the extra insulation was important.  It would be interesting to see how the tent does in really cold (20 degree) weather.  Note the door and the vestibule - one of each on both sides.

My sleeping pad fit nicely on one side of the tent, with floor space and room for gear on the other side.

I love the fact that my large pack easily fits under a vestibule.  With my other tent, there is no such room, and the pack just has to lean against a tree.  If it were pouring rain, and you were very careful, you could cook under the vestibule.

I look forward to many adventures with my new tent before I, or it, gets to old to have adventures!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cumberland Marsh Again

I'm behind again on posting about hiking.  This hike was done March 24.  I returned to Cumberland Marsh Natural Area - always a good spot to see birds and even other wildlife (such as two raccoons in the distance foraging in the marsh).  This time, I did a 4.4 mile out and back with a loop portion that went through the forest

but also had nice wetland views.

  I walked the loop counter-clockwise.  Here is a topographic map view and a satellite image view of the hike.  Arrows show the direction hiked.


I observed 14 species of birds on the hike, the coolest being the majestic bald eagle (two of them):

Some other wildlife that observed along the way were the white-throated sparrow (oh, such a beautiful, sweet song they have),

the silver spotted skipper,

and the falcate orange wingtip.

This is becoming one of my favorite places for a short hike when I don't have time to get to the mountains.  Can you see why?



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.