Thursday, September 18, 2014

Cape May Point, a Year Later

Last September, I did some minor hiking in the Cape May, NJ area, and now a year later, I was back and had time for a short three mile hike in Cape May Point State Park this past Tuesday.  It is a wonderful park with easy and well marked (with interpretive signage) trails.  Other than just enjoying some time in the out of doors, I was on the watch for flowers, monarchs, and wildlife.  And I saw plenty of all three.  In fact, I will do a future post on another "What Am I?" creature that I saw.

Here are some photos from my short but pleasant hike in the Garden State a few days ago.  I am not going to write a lot today.  I will let the photos do the talking for me.  Mother Nature was dressed for show on this lovely September day in Cape May!

While I didn't get any photographs of monarchs as they headed south, I was plenty of them during my stay at the Cape.  I marveled at these tiny creatures, preparing to fly across the huge Delaware Bay and then a couple of thousand miles more to their wintering place in the mountainous pine forests of Mexico.  How do they do it?  How do these creatures, with a brain the size of a pin head, find this place that they have never been to.  In fact their parents were not there, and I don't think that their grandparents were either.  Somehow, they do it, against all odds.  It seems miraculous!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Return to Dutch Gap

Friday, September 12.  So, I had today off and resolved to do some hiking.  All week, I thought of returning to the mountains.  But then today came, and I looked at other things I needed to do with a busy weekend at Cape May, NJ coming up, and decided to hike in Dutch Gap Conservation Area.  It would save me at least 2.5 to 3 hours of driving, round trip.  Decisions, decisions!

I am not going to show the route of my 5.6 miles hike.  You can see a similar track here from a prior hike a couple of years ago.  And there is no need to show an elevation profile - being around an oxbow in a large river, the James, the terrain is pretty flat.  My main goals were to enjoy some time outside and see some wildlife.  I was not disappointed in either regard, enjoying a nice walk and seeing a deer, osprey, a box turtle, egrets, a green heron, various ducks, a great blue heron, an unidentified snake, and other miscellaneous birds.  Here are a few photos.

I am not sure what this small snake is.  I found it under a log, and it was very docile.

Much of the hike was within sight or a short distance from water.  This is part of the oxbow.

The walking pathways are easy and pleasant.  What a nice morning walk I had!

Seeing a box turtle is always a treat.  I've seen them before here.  Hopefully, people leave them alone when they see them and don't harm or collect them.

This one stuck its head out for a look after a while.

Dragonflies are fascinating, don't you think?

I guess the river level is low, as I can't remember seeing a nice beach on prior hikes here.

This foot bridge turned what used to be a 7.2 mile out and back hike into a 4.4 mile loop.  I did some side trails, making my total distance hiked as 5.6 miles.

Was this more fun than being at work?  Uh, duh!!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Matthew's Arm Hike - Day 3

After a good second day of hiking, where I was lucky to find water at a place to camp, I woke up early last Sunday (August 31).  I again has slept fitfully on my airless air mattress.  Every time I tried sleeping on my side, it felt as if my hip were being slowly crushed.  I spent the night alternating between long periods of wakefulness - listening to the deafening sounds of katydids and cicadas, along with the calling of barred owls once again - and short periods of sleep.  In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a couple of screech owls joined the chorus.  That was very cool, because I have heard this owl only a few times before.

I estimated that I would have about a 6-7 mile hike, and I knew that I had at least 2,000 feet of elevation gain ahead of me, so I resolved an early start.  I skipped a hot breakfast and ate a power bar and some dried fruit (and a mug of hot tea with honey, of course), got everything packed up, and was on the trail by 8:00 AM.  That's late for long distance hikers, but an early trail start for me.  I'd filtered three liters of water the night before, knowing it would be a warm and humid day.

Here is my track out for the day, marked in orange and starting where the blue track (day 2) ended, and ending back at the car where the orange star is.  My trails for the hike of just over six miles as it turned out were: Beecher Ridge, Matthew's Arm, Tuscarora - Overall Run, and Appalachian Trails.

Here is the day three elevation profile.  You can see that I regained all of the elevation that I lost the prior two days (especially day 1).  I gained a net of 2,310 feet, climbing a total of 2,763 feet while descending 453 feet.  In the warm and humid weather, sweat poured off of me during the hike up, and my shirt was so wet that I literally wrung liquid from it at one point.

I just took my time on the long, uphill walk, practicing the "rest step" that a guy in Alaska taught me.  You basically hesitate a split second with each step.  When I walk around town, I can maintain a fast and steady pace of a 14 to 16 minute mile.  Going uphill with a pack, not so much.  In fact, on my walk out last Sunday, my pace - including some rest breaks - was about 1.3 miles an hour!

It was another pretty walk in the woods, but once again, without a single view.  The trail was lovely, though.  I even saw a tiny hint of autumn.

You can see that the woods were often fairly open, without a lot of the understory that many wildlife species prefer.  My only wildlife sightings that day were a grey squirrel and a quick glimpse of a pileated woodpecker as it flew through the forest.

I saw more people by far on the third day of hiking than on the prior two.  It was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and especially once I got closer to Matthew's Arm Campground, there were lots of people out hiking.  Many of them were hiking down to Overall Run Falls, the highest waterfall in the park at 93 feet.  Once I joined the Tuscarora - Overall Run Trail, I could have turned south and reached the falls with about a half mile descent.  But at that point, I was ready to get back to the car and civilization, so I will save the falls for another trip.  The trail is fairly steep though there, climbing about 500 feet or so every mile, and I ran into some people who turned back.  Others seemed seriously unprepared - no packs or maps.  I showed a few groups my map and explained how to get to the falls - they were going the wrong way, realized it, and had turned around.  I ran into one such group twice.

I liked this tiny purple mushroom growing under the lip of a rock in the footpath.

About 50 hours after I had started out on the Appalachian Trail on Friday, I reached this storied footpath once again, and headed back to the car.  I'll pass by this stretch again later this fall when I hike the length of the AT in Shenandoah.  Hopefully, it will be cooler during that walk.  And hopefully, I will get the leak in my air mattress located and fixed by then!

It was good to reach my car and get my sopping wet clothes changed.  A while later, I was heading south on the Skyline Drive, and enjoying a frosty blackberry milkshake at the Matthew's Arm Wayside.  Yummy!  It was an exclamation point on a very fun hike!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Matthew's Arm Hike - Day 2

After a mostly downhill day of hiking on day one of my three day hike in Shenandoah National Park, day two resembled a roller coaster track - up, down, up, down.  This day of hiking was a week ago, Saturday, August 30.

My route is shown in blue, and I hiked it starting at the bottom and ending at the top where it joins the track marked in orange (Sunday's hike out of the backcountry).  I hiked on the Thornton River, Appalachian, Jeremy Run, Knob Mountain Cutoff, Knob Mountain, and Heiskell Hollow Trails for the roughly 9.5 miles.  At one point (see the short blue spur heading east near the top right of the map), I inexplicably walked by the marker for the Heiskell Hollow Trail.  I realized my error soon enough and turned around.

The elevation profile reminds me of a roller coaster track - up and down, up and down.  It did have two nice level sections that were a joy to hike after the long and somewhat steep uphill slogs.  I gained and lost a lot of elevation that day.

As I finished my breakfast by the Thornton River "ford," a deer came down to get a drink, I suppose.  She saw me, and bounded into the woods.  I packed up my camp and was on the trail by about 9:15.  I had slept poorly because of my flat air mattress, but had really enjoyed the sounds of the night, especially hearing multiple barred owls calling off and on.  As in the past day, my walk was through deep deciduous forests, but there were a lot less spider webs in the face on the second day, as the trails I was on were more frequently traveled.

I saw a number of interesting fungi along this day of hiking, such as these three types:

At camp, I made a decision to hike with a full Camelbak, 3 liters of water.  Upon studying the route, I could see that most of it was high up, and I felt like I would have limited success finding water as I hiked.  That was generally true - here is one stream that I crossed.

It is summer still, but can autumn be very far away?

Unlike my first day on the trail, I ran into people hiking on the second day.  I probably encountered at least a dozen others on the more remote trails, and even more when I passed near the Matthew's Arm Campground.  I chatted with a guy who had been hiking since June.  He would finish the southern half of the Appalachian Trail in about two more weeks.  I told him that I felt I would feel too lonely to do that, but you never know.  He told me that he would not be hiking the northern half in another year.  His trail name was "Hedge Hopper."  I still don't have a trail name.  Maybe I will after my longer hike later this fall.

Once I reached the Heiskell Hollow Trail, it descended fairly steeply.  I was looking forward to finding a nice spot to camp along the East Fork of Dry Run, where my guidebook recommended camping.  But as I descended along Compton Run, that creek was totally dry.  I was getting a little nervous.  My three liters of water was mostly consumed during hours of hiking up and down on a fairly warm day.  The trail leveled out, and I spotted a small pool of water in the creek.  I noted the spot and kept going for the camping spot by Dry Run.  I kept hoping the Dry Run was named after someone, rather than being descriptive.  But when I got to Dry Run, here is what it looked like.  What do you think?

I really questioned finding a good spot to camp with water here.  I looked around for about 15 minutes and then made a command decision - I revered course and headed back to where I saw the pool of water.  And near there, I set up my little tent - my home for the night!

I hung out some things to dry and air out, filtered plenty of water, and relaxed for a bit.

I talked with a group of six who were desperate for water and showed them where the one wet area was.  Then I made dinner, cleaned up, did a little "sponge bath," and relaxed.  As it got dark, I lay on my back by the dry stream for a couple of hours, just looking at the patches of sky through the canopy of trees, and listening to the sounds of the night roll over me.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Matthew's Arm Hike - Day 1

Everything was packed the night before for the start of my three day hike on last Friday (August 29).  I had the day off from work, and could not wait to start hiking.  It took me a while to find the trailhead, and I didn't start hiking until nearly 11 AM.  But that was okay - no rush to get to camp.  I figured that I had about nine miles of hiking ahead of me for the day, and it was mostly downhill - some of it quite steep!  Here is my route for the day.  I started at the pink arrow at the top, followed the route marked in pink, and ended up camping by the Thornton River indicated by the red arrow.

The track for the day started on the Appalachian Trail, and then followed these trails: Pole Link Bridge, Little Devil Stairs, Keyser Fire Road (I think that is the name), Piney Branch Trail, Hull School Trail, and Thornton River Trail.

Here is my elevation profile for the day.  Note the steep descent between miles 2.5 and 4.25 - that was hiking down the scenic and rugged Little Devil Stairs.

Little Devil Stairs is rugged and beautiful.  Do you see why it got it's name?  A few years ago, I hiked up this trail with a group.  Read more about that hike here.

One of the nice things about the first day of hiking was that I was often near a stream and, on the steeper parts, little cascades.  I only carried about a liter or so of water that first day, because I could refill my Camelbak almost any time.  That kept my first day pack weight to about 32 pounds.

On the way up the fire road, I passed these large fungi on a dead log.  By the way, this route also passed by an old family cemetery from back when these mountains were not a national park, but people's homes.  You can see more about that here....

You can see that the water levels are quite low. This almost came back to bite me in the butt on the second day.  This is the very "bony" Thornton River.  At higher water levels, this is supposed to be a good place for brook trout, but I didn't see any.

After about nine miles, I came to the "ford" of the Thornton River that my on-line guide referenced.  There's a funny tale about that.  Last year, when I aborted my trip after stumbling on stairs, I had everything planned and ready to go.  This included buying a pair of Teva's so that I could ford the Thornton River, because the Backpacker Magazine route said that the river had to be forded at the end of the first day.  So I had bought the Teva's just for this trip.  That being said, they came in handy earlier this year when I did wade across rivers on two other backpacking trips.

As I hiked along, I wondered how deep and wide the ford of the Thornton River would be.  I got the answer at the end of the day - it was so narrow one could spit across it, and the "ford" consisted of a couple of large rocks that you could almost walk across with your eyes shut.  No need to bring the Teva's.  But since I had them, and carried them that far, I did wear them around camp to give my feet a break from hiking boots.

Just after the river, on its banks, I set up my camp kitchen.  Everything I needed was there to cook a nice dinner in a bag!

The guide to the hike said that after "fording" the river, hike 0.1 miles more and look for a great campsite in a sheltered glade.  I hiked more than a quarter mile and saw no suitable place to camp.  After spending nearly an hour looking, I "forded" the river again, backtracking to the one tiny, more or less level spot I had seen - right along the trail.  You are not supposed to camp within 10 yards of a trail but I felt I had no choice.  I didn't guy the vestibule out because if someone did come down the trail in the dark, they would have tripped.

It was a comfortable enough spot, except my air mattress showed a leak and went flat, and stayed flat.  That made for a rough night sleeping.  I was awake most of the night listening to katydids, cicadas, and "dueling" barred owls that called off and on during the night.  I really enjoyed listening to them.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Backpacking Matthew's Arm - Overview

Last October, I was all set to go for a one night backpacking trip in the Matthew's Arm area of Shenandoah National Park.  Two days before I was to leave, I missed a step at work and nearly fell on a short flight of stairs, and twisted my back.  Trip delayed!

So when I decided to go backpacking this past Friday through Sunday, I dusted off my plans from last fall and headed up to the Blue Ridge.  Instead of the one night trip outlined in a Backpacker Magazine, I started my hike following that itinerary, and adopted the second day from a trip in a Johnny Molloy's book "Day and Overnight Hikes in the SNP."  Essentially, day one of my trip was from Backpacker, day two was a combo of the Backpacker route and Mr. Molloy's, and day 3 was of my own crafting from studying my topo map of the Park.

It was a lot of fun, and great weather for the summer time, plus, doing this hike allowed me to reach two more hiking goals for 2014: a third backpacking trip and over 110 trail miles for the year.  I went solo, which is not my preference.  I nearly talked a friend into coming along, but he had other plans.  He and I are going for a 108 mile hike this fall, and not only did I want to go backpacking for a couple of nights for the fun of it, I wanted to judge my general level of fitness and preparedness for the longer trip.

Future posts will outline each day's experience, but I want to start off with an overview of my hike here.  Where is Matthew's Arm?  It is in the northern part of the park, and part of the hike is, according to Johnny Molloy, "in the most remote area of the Park's North District."  Here is a map with the location (red circle).  Note the red star due east - that is Washington, Virginia, also known as "Little Washington."  That first night, as I camped along the Thornton River in the park, I could not help think of the incredible meals being served just miles away at the Inn at Little Washington.  I took my wife there for her birthday this year and it was the best meal and service we had ever had!  But this past Friday night, my "meal in a bag" was good enough.

Here is my three day, 25 mile track.  I started and ended at the blue star near Skyline Drive milepost 21.  Day one was on the pink route, day two is marked in blue, and the last day marked in orange.

Here is the elevation profile for the three day hike.  Ignore the blue markings at the end of the profile.  I could not find a way to eliminate them in my mapping software.  You can see that there is a lot of up and down in this trip.  During three days, I climbed and lost 6,800 vertical feet.  Day 1 was mostly downhill, day 2 was a mix of up and down hill all day, but with more downhill, and day 3 was almost all hiking uphill back to the car.
By the way, this profile is not quite right.  I started and ended at 3,400 feet.  So the left most part of the profile is actually the end of the hike, not the beginning as shown.  Not sure how I messed that up...

Did I encounter scenic views on the hike?  No, absolutely not!  Most of it was hiking in the "green tunnel" of the Appalachians.  So before I started, I took a photo from the Skyline Drive of the Thornton Hollow area, where I would be camping later that night.

A lot of visitors to the park never really make it to the back country.  On my first day, a Friday, I only saw a couple people near where I crossed a road at the bottom of the Little Devil Stairs trail, and then three guys hiked down the 1.5 - 2 miles from the Skyline Drive the opposite way to look for a place to fish as I set up my camp.  I saw a dozen or more hikers Saturday, and lots Sunday as I hiked out and got near a park campground.

In comparison to the vistas from the road, this is more or less how it looked while hiking for 25 miles.  The forest is almost 100% deciduous, and in fact the Backpacker article specifically suggested this hike at fall foliage time.  I bet that the woods would be spectacular that time of year!

One advantage to hiking here as opposed to the two other areas that I backpacked in this fall is that the trails are well marked, and there are directional posts at every trail intersection.  With a good topo map, it would be hard to get lost if you are paying attention.  In the interest of full disclosure, I was not doing so on the second day and went right by a key junction.  But I realized my error in less than a quarter mile, turned around, and got back on track.

How about wildlife?  Well, I saw this bear scat in less than a half mile, and saw plenty more of it along the way, but I saw no bruins themselves.  I saw two deer, two gray squirrels (one which dropped out of a tree and landed about five feet from me, causing me to jump), a lizard, two toads, and a pileated woodpecker.  I heard plenty of the latter calling as I hiked along.  I was also entertained both nights by owls - barred owls both nights, and a screech owl adding in early Sunday morning.  I love hearing the owls!

The dominant wildlife encounters were spiders!  I must have "eaten" 100 spider webs that first day as I hiked on trails that clearly had not been hiked on for a while.  And at night, the sounds of katydids and cicadas calling was almost deafening!

As I said, this trip was a test for how I will do this fall on a longer trip.  I still have some working out and prep to do, but overall, I did okay carrying a 32-35 pound pack up and down mountains for three days by myself.